Pros: The Stones are still the most energetic band in the world!
Cons: You were told this is a documentary? No it isn't.
The Bottom Line: Do you really need to know if The Rolling Stones are worth watching?
Martin Scorsese would certainly seem like a good candidate to direct a documentary about the career of The Rolling Stones. When you listen to the background music of some of his movies - Goodfellas and Casino mainly come to mind here - you hear the sounds of The Rolling Stones, massaging the scene and setting the tone. And when Shine a Light came to light itself last year, it was treated like the greatest Stones documentary since Gimme Shelter. In fact it was treated like Martin Scorsese's prodigal son. Of course, to garner the undying adulation of critics everywhere, Shine a Light would have to be one hell of a documentary!
When I popped Shine a Light into my DVD player, I learned that my local critic lied to me. (Roger Ebert is usually a lot more sensible than this.) Shine a Light was terrific, no doubt. But I felt pretty cheated. I was promised rare behind-the-scenes footage and interview clips documenting the career of the World's Greatest Rock Band. But that behind-the-scenes footage was limited to the beginning of the DVD. And those interview clips were sprinkled rather lightly; too lightly to give Shine a Light that documentary tang I was looking for. As for the performance footage, there's performance footage aplenty, but it's limited to a one-night show The Rolling Stones performed at a theater in New York City.
What I'm saying is that Shine a Light is no documentary. What theatergoers got for their ten-dollar tickets was the world's most overhyped concert video. Shine a Light has some stunning cinematography, but Shine a Light is still nothing more than a run-of-the-mill concert video. It's not even gussied up to pretend to be anything else. It's a concert video with an a-list director who didn't even have to do anything. As a director, Scorsese's job is to take the mundane or the ordinary and give it a glossy coat in order to get the audience to really care. But as his subject in Shine a Light was The Rolling Stones, Scorsese didn't even have to really do anything other than point and click. The Rolling Stones are fantastic subjects in and of themselves. No gloss is necessary.
The interview scenes don't really add anything to the movie. There's too few of them to make a real impact. But I still liked them. They're not in the movie to show an introspective side of Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and the incomparable Mick Jagger. The clips are all old, and the band doesn't try to give you any deep thought. Instead, the clips were included in order to show The Rolling Stones having fun, being themselves, being younger and full of life. In one great clip taken when the Stones had only been around for a little while, Jagger confesses that he expected the band to fizzle out within months. Afterward, we get transported back to New York City in 2007, 40 years beyond the sell date.
Taken for the concert DVD it is, Shine a Light stands among the best. (Not that I've seen that many.) The band is as fast, frenzied, and energetic as ever. While there are a lot of songs I would have loved to hear which weren't played, the band has an enormous song catalogue full of masterworks which congeal and combine into a seamless blend of rock, blues, folk, and R&B. The band gets things off with a literal jump - Jumpin' Jack Flash. It ends with the best live rendition of Satisfaction I've ever heard. Satisfaction sounded like it was changed for the times, with a harder edge. But it doesn't affect the song. Satisfaction was never about music, but about testosterone. Along the way, we get treated to a song list which includes a lot of songs I actually wasn't able to recognize, and I'm very much a Stones fan. They very well could have been from The band's 2006 album, A Bigger Bang. Jack White, Buddy Guy, and Christina Aguilera contribute to the set.
Among the missing songs are some odd choices: Gimme Shelter was axed, which I found strange because it's almost the signature guitar riff for Richards. Street Fighting Man also wasn't included. I really love the band's faster, uplifting cover of their namesake, Like a Rolling Stone, and was disappointed that it didn't appear. Paint it Black, which features another one of Richards' most popular riffs, was also blacked out. And in a show of REALLY odd songs to eliminate, Shine a Light doesn't make it into the official set. It makes an appearance, but not until the dedication which rolls just before the end credits. But as I've already said, I'm not going to do too much complaining about the song list: My favorite Stones song is Sympathy for the Devil, which sadly doesn't get the treatment it deserves. Jagger does too much whooping for too long. Start Me Up appears at the end, and the band's performance of the night - at least to me - was a splendidly soulful and restrained Tumbling Dice.
The Rolling Stones fly in Shine a Light. Martin Scorsese's direction captures their energy and zeal. While Shine a Light focuses on Jagger a bit too much, it's Jagger's natural magnetism and charisma which makes him one of the true great rock frontmen. The other band members don't go without mention, and neither do the extra musicians and background singers. But all of them are shown to be truly enjoying themselves and lost in the adoration of their fans. To The Rolling Stones, there's is nothing but the band and the audience when the curtain rises and the lights shine. In this solid two-hour show, the band begins fast and doesn't ever once slow down.
Shine a Light is an immense failure as a documentary. But taken as what it is, it is a resounding success for both Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones. It may not be what people tell you it is, but it's a great show featuring one of the greatest rock bands, and it's entertaining as ten Mick Jaggers.