Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sinew and Duracell: Martin Scorsese and the Frightening Endurance of the Rolling Stones


Near the start of Shine A Light, which documents a Rolling Stones concert at the Beacon Theatre, New York in 2006, there is a clip of the young Mick Jagger being interviewed by Michael Parkinson. Parkie, offscreen, asks a question about the long-term prospects of this rock’n’roll band, who have been together for two eventful years. But Jagger, looking impossibly young and pert, is unfazed. “I think we’re pretty well set up for at least another year,” he replies.
Ten million years later, Jagger’s insouciance is played for comic effect. The Rolling Stones – who used to stand for devil-worship, drugs, and the breaking of butterflies on wheels – are now the Duracell bunnies of rock’n’roll. They are about endurance. They keep on keeping on, gathering no Moss.
Martin Scorsese’s film isn’t really a documentary. There are a few fly-on-the-wall moments in a funny, and slightly phoney, introductory piece about the filmmaker’s urgent need to acquire a set-list, and Jagger’s reluctance to provide with one. It’s good comedy, and provides Scorsese with his best onscreen cameo since he hitched a ride in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab in Taxi Driver, but it also suggests a level of cinematic intervention which the film fails to deliver. This isn’t Cocksucker Blues. Unlike Robert Frank’s 1972 documentary, there’s nothing here that would offend the Stones’ images of themselves. Instead, Scorsese reprises the cartoon versions of the band’s personalities. So, Jagger is vain, controlling, and financially astute; Keith Richards is an incorrigible old pirate and, most probably, undead; Charlie Watts is bored; and Ronnie Wood can’t quite believe his luck. These stereotypes have the advantage of being more or less true, at least in the sense that the Stones have been playing the roles for so long that they couldn’t do it any other way. But if they are masks, the film makes no attempt to look behind them. Perhaps that’s what those opening scenes allude too. Scorsese may be the director, but Jagger is the boss.
Instead, you get the live spectacle, and it’s here that Scorsese surpasses himself. Rock music is notoriously hard to film, and most directors try to compensate for their inability to capture the visceral power of the concert experience by going for fast cuts and spectacular sweeps with the camera, cutting to a crowd shot whenever things threaten to get interesting. Scorsese has cameras in all the right places, and gets so close to the action that, on occasion, it’s scary. I saw the film at an IMAX cinema and, friends, it wasn’t pretty. Yes, Keith Richards may advertise Louis Vuitton suitcases in a subconscious nod to the leathery durability of his skin, but an invasion of woolly mammoths would have been less disconcerting than the image of his Jurassic visage blown up to fill a fifty-foot screen. This effect is multiplied when the guitarist sings: off-licenses on sink estates could repel loitering hoodies by playing his warbling attack on You Got The Silver.
If Keith resembles a happy monkfish, Jagger is an even more extraordinary creature. At the first rush of the Stones’ 1960s success, he wore a jumper and shook an imaginary tambourine. Now, in his bus pass years, he is a snakehipped rent-boy cheerleader; a jitterbugging fool dancing in a manner that goes far beyond camp. The fact that this gay imp is singing songs of heterosexual braggadocio is one of the curiosities of the Rolling Stones’ appeal. But then, this is circus.
Musically, they aren’t quite on top form: listen to the soundtrack album without the pictures, and you’ll soon be yearning for the crisp economy of the original recorded versions. (Faraway Eyes has some nice steel guitar from Wood, but is taken beyond parody by Jagger’s vocal; Tumbling Dice doesn’t quite get in the groove; Some Girls goes off into a nasty place as Jagger sings: “Some girls give you children, And I only made love to her once.”) But in the context of the concert experience, it’s interesting to hear how the Stones tug at the rhythms of the tunes, and particularly to appreciate the peculiarities of Richards’ guitar. He’s a sporadic player, drifting in and out of focus. The sound design of the film – which amplifies the contribution of whichever musician is onscreen - is immaculate.
There are guests. Jack White does a decent Jagger impersonation on Loving Cup; Christina Aguilera volunteers to be molested from behind by Jagger on Live With Me; and Buddy Guy brings a welcome reminder of what the Stones used to be about on Champagne And Reefer. And Bill Clinton pops up to bask in reflected glory, and to reassure the audience at this benefit concert that you’re only as old as the Rolling Stone you feel.