Stones' light still burns bright

  • Bang Showbiz
  • 4 April 2008

It's 1972 and a fresh-faced Mick Jagger is asked by dubious-sounding TV interviewer Dick Cavett whether he can see himself rocking on until he has reached the ripe old age of 60. "Yeah, easily," the now 64-year-old Knight of the Realm shoots back immediately, without even stopping to think.

At the time some may have attributed the then 29-year-old showman's unshakeable certainty to that feeling of invincibility which often comes with youth. Anyone lucky enough to witness the ease with which he continues to writhe lithely around on stage with The Rolling Stones to this day, however, can attest that he was merely speaking the truth.

Thanks to legendary New York filmmaker Martin Scorsese, those unable to get their hands on a coveted ticket to see the Stones live in action can now get the privilege for the price of a cinema ticket. And make no mistake - it is a privilege.

A long-time fan and contemporary of the band, 65-year-old Scorsese was so compelled by their mesmerising stage dynamic he decided he had to catch it on screen.

He did so over two nights at New York's Beacon Theatre in 2006 as they performed charity benefit concerts infront of an intimate crowd of 2,800 people to mark former US president Bill Clinton's 60th birthday.

Explaining his symbiotic relationship with the band, Scorsese enthused: "The sound of their music, the chords, the vocals, the entire feel inspired me greatly and became a basis for most of the work I've done in my movies, going from 'Mean Streets' to 'Raging Bull', 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino'. The nature of the music is timeless, for me."

Indeed, in terms of attracting live audiences the ageing stars are at the very height of their powers a full 56 years after Mick, irascible guitarist Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts first played together, joined then by founding member Brian Jones on guitar, bassist Bill Wyman and pianist Ian Stewart.

From August 2005 until August 2007 the familiar line-up of Keith, Mick, Charlie and guitarist Ronnie Wood - who joined the band in 1975 - pulled in so many punters during their globe-trotting 'A Bigger Bang Tour' they raked in a staggering $558 million.

But what Scorsese proves without any shadow of a doubt is that the four men, all in their 60s, are not just cashing in on former glories. Anyone who has seen them in action recently would defy the world's current crop of rock star pretenders to match their stage presence with such kinetic energy.

Granted, Charlie may now resemble a country gent, with Keith bearing a sallowed, intricately lined face which can't help but bring to mind his famously debauched lifestyle and fabled battle with heroin addiction (which saw him seek treatment in the US in the late 70s), but their swagger and presence remains largely in tact. Most notable for his stagecraft, of course, is Mick.

Keith recently described him as "incredibly vain", a barb which hits home with laser-like accuracy after you see him strutting across the boards of the Beacon Theatre to the sound of opening number 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'.

Dressed in skinny jeans and a tight-fitting black t-shirt his famously large lips hurl out the lyrics with a series of so many pouts you could be forgiven for wondering if he practices them in front of the mirror.

Wiggling his hips and bounding across the stage, t-shirt riding up to reveal his ridiculously flat stomach, following this 64-year-old around the stage must have been one of Scorsese's toughest tasks. And as intercut footage of the preparations show, Mick didn't exactly make it easy for him.

Having shot the last ever performance of rock group The Band for his concert movie 'The Last Waltz' in 1978 - a show which included guest performances from Ronnie and Keith - Scorsese is no stranger to shooting rock groups in action.

But early scenes of the film show Mick in a mischievous mood, apparently determined to make the 65-year-old film legend's job needlessly difficult. "We're only going to give him the set list an hour before we go on stage," he says with a smile, before we cut to Scorsese in neurotic Woody Allen mode explaining to someone off camera that he needs to know what their opening track is so he can focus in on Keith, for example, if he is opening with an epic riff.

Given his side-career in film production, it is unlikely such concerns had failed to occur to the Rolling Stones' frontman.

Later, Scorsese is shown discussing the dangers inherent in using incredibly powerful stage lights and, keeping a straight face, informs a crew member: "We can't burn Mick Jagger."

As if in response, while taking a breather as Keith performs lead vocals on 'You Got Silver', from 1969 album 'Let It Bleed', and 'Connection', from 1967's 'Between the Buttons', Mick later exclaims in somewhat camp fashion: "These lights are burning my arse."

His suffering is worth it. Scorsese assembled a formidable team of some of cinema's most celebrated cinematographers to help him achieve his goal of showing the world exactly what a live Stones performance tastes like. Cameras swoop in on the band members from all angles, rising in and out of close-ups and capturing both their individual quirks and their respective idiosyncrasies.

This, in fact, is what 'Shine a Light' is all about. Those who have expressed dismay at the lack of a thorough retrospective look at the band's history - as he did with his acclaimed Bob Dylan documentary 'No Direction Home' in 2005 - are missing the point. Scorsese merely wants to give us an authentic glimpse of the band's personalities both individually and collectively. Every now and then Scorsese cuts back to an assortment of interviews conducted at different junctures of their career. We see Mick forced to debate the effect of drugs in front of a line-up of religious and political figures after he and Richards were convicted for drug possession in 1967 (Richards' conviction was later quashed, with Mick given a conditional discharge).

We are used to seeing black and white clips of The Beatles deploying their Liverpudlian wit on a myriad of journalists, but less so the Stones. We get the chance here to see Mick patronising a female Japanese journalist while lying to her about his age, and a young Charlie coping with remarkable tolerance as a snooty interviewer berates him for not showing the "discipline" to follow his dream of becoming an artist.

His implacable nature mirrors the Charlie we cut back to on stage - no showy antics, but pure class through and through. At 66 he may be the oldest band member, but he is yet to use the ability to give his drum kit the requisite whacks and thumps.

It's just as well, because Keith is ever the virtuoso on guitar, even managing to style-out a fluffed chord after an audience member does something to make him laugh.

Keith displays his easy, roguish charm when asked to explain how he is still standing after his notoriously wild behaviour - which saw him arrested five times on drugs charges. "I don't know. I don't like to analyse it," he answers. Then, when pushed, he says with a smile: "I guess my luck just hasn't run out yet."

His brotherly relationship with Ronnie comes across as the pair trade eye contact along with riffs on stage, with Ronnie revealing he believes he was chosen to work with the band all those years ago because Keith saw he had the durability to handle keeping up with his many excesses. Asked whether they were really as badly behaved as people think - bear in mind here Ronnie's revelation last year that Keith once pulled a gun on him during an argument - Ronnie says simply: "Yes. We still are."

Their bickering now takes a milder tone, with Ronnie claiming on camera that he is a better guitarist before we cut to Keith musing, "it's not about who's the best, he said he was? I knew he would say that. He knows the truth".

Eager to show the band's continued relevance Mick duets with both The White Stripes' Jack White and pop princess Christina Aguilera during the set.

White does fine as they sing country tune 'Loving Cup', but looks visibility stunned to find himself in such exhalted company. Aguilera on the other hand, revels in her chance to sing with the rock legends on 'Let It Bleed' track 'Live With Me'. Mick is clearly impressed, seemingly enthralled by her shapely bottom as he grabs her from behind and gyrates enthusiastically.

It is 71-year-old guitar maestro Buddy Guy who wins out in the cameo contest however, when he joins them for a performance of Muddy Water's 'Champagne and Reefer'.

As the Stones blaze effortlessly through classics like 'Sympathy for the Devil' and 'Brown Sugar' during the final stages of their set the telepathy built over a lifetime of performing is palpable.

And it's a chemistry that was still clearly visible as the band introduced the film at the UK premiere in London earlier this month. Laughing and joking with each other, Mick suave in a long scarf, Ronnie's black locks big and bold as ever, Charlie his usual understated self and Keith looking as living-dead as only he can, the band still retain that cool which only the greatest rock stars pin down.

The hundreds of fans who turned out to greet them in Leicester Square attest to the fact they retain the utter adulation and affection of the public.

Back on screen, as the Stones stalk triumphantly off stage having belted out '(I can't get no) Satisfaction' and 'Shine a Light', we see Scorsese frantically ordering his cameras to stay focused on his subjects as they leave the building.

Once outside we pan out until we lose sight of the protagonists, replaced by New York's spectacular night skyline. Never mind the Big Apple though, the Stones conquered the whole damn globe a long time ago. This film may not detail the exact history of how it happened, but few who see it will be left wondering.

Just like Scorsese, these veterans are still a class act.

'Shine a Light' is released in UK cinemas April 11. The accompanying CD is out now.

By Robbie McIntyre

© BANG Media International

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