Saturday, November 1, 2008

Scorseses' Amazing Stones

This post was originally published at The New Nixon on April 8, 2008.

They say the Democrats take African-Americans for granted. They also get rock and roll. The high water mark of GOP musical hipness was Lee Atwater and Delbert McClinton at Bush 41’s January 1989 Inaugural — also attended, as I recall, by the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood. But for Wood, Jagger, Richards, and Watts in their astonishingly good concert film “Shine A Light,” it’s all about the Clintons. Martin Scorsese filmed two shows in late 2006 at New York’s Beacon Theater. They were fundraisers for the Clinton foundation, so an immaculately coiffed Sen. Clinton got to bring her mom to meet the band, and 42 kicked off the show. Not fair!

Before they and he die, every great rock and roll band should get Scorsese to film them. No one who doesn’t love music could make such succulent movies about it, beginning with “The Last Waltz” in the late 1970s. “Shine A Light” tilts to my middle-period Stones, as opposed to the mid-1960s “Between the Buttons” and “Aftermath” favored by one of the friends my wife and I went with. Seven of the songs were from either 1972’s “Exile on Main Street” or 1978’s “Some Girls,” including the title song of the latter, Jagger’s personal romantic history, which he discerningly edited, thank goodness. Who wants to go to an NC-17 concert movie?

Many years ago I read in a review of “Exile” that “Tumbling Dice” proved why Keith Richards was indispensable. And so he is — so they all are. Helping keep them on center stage is their, and especially Mick Jagger’s, cheerful self-confidence. After torturing Scorsese for days over the set list, which he just wanted so he could set up his shots properly and make the aging rockers look good, Jagger has a minion present it to him a moment before they roar into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with relentless power. They sound like they’re 18, not 60.

The fans closest to the stage actually were 18. Most were singing the lyrics, so maybe they weren’t total ringers. Still, I’ll bet either Scorsese or Jagger decided to make sure the audience didn’t look like an AARP convention. The Stones had up-to-the-minute guests, too, including Christina Aguilera for a hot “Live With Me” and, on “Loving Cup,” the White Stripes’ Jack White, who was born exactly nine months after the Stones album “It’s Only Rock and Roll” was released (coincidence? Ask his parents). Singing with Jagger, Aguilera and White look awed. The Stones and bluesman Buddy Guy are a mutual admiration society on “Champagne & Reefer.” You want to talk about politically incorrect? Richards talks to the audience through billowing cigarette smoke. Is that still allowed? You want to try to tell him otherwise?

Interplay between Scorsese and an aide disclosed some concern about a back-lit Jagger also catching fire as he entered from the lobby for “Sympathy For The Devil,” in which Jagger, in one of his best lyrics, beats President Reagan to identifying the evil empire by nearly 20 years:

I stuck around St. Petersburg

When I saw it was a time for a change

Killed the czar and his ministers

Anastasia screamed in vain

Another great city’s agony was a subtext of “Shine A Light.” The second song in the movie, “Shattered,” about bankruptcy-era New York City, seemed an odd choice, as beautifully performed as it was. For a shot of Ron Wood, Scorsese boosts the guitarist’s audio track so you can hear every note as his fingers dance up the fretboard. Still, it’s not my favorite song. But I remembered it at the end, when the camera seems to swoop out the door of the Beacon Theater and pull dizzyingly back to a spot about 1000 feet above Governors Island, looking uptown at a city alive with light. You still want to cry, seeing those towers gone. Then your eye is drawn from the dark place on the screen to the full moon — which, just then, morphs into the Stones’ trademark red lips and tongue. Shine a light indeed. Keep rocking, guys. But would you play McCain’s big gig next January?