In 2008, it’s easy to be snide about the Rolling Stones. “They’re no longer relevant; they’re only in it for the money; they’re ancient; they’re a joke.” I read these criticisms often – usually immediately upon the Stones announcing a new album and/or tour. And after a few too many mediocre albums, sometimes I even utter similar criticisms myself. The last time I saw them, at Madison Square Garden in 2006, was disappointing; a lackluster, sloppy affair that made me utterly disinterested in seeing the band again. (Especially at those prices.)
Therefore, I went to see their new Martin Scorsese directed concert film, “Shine A Light,” with very low expectations. The Stones have made many concert films, and with the exception of “Gimme Shelter,” none have been particularly mesmerizing. But “Shine A Light” is a very pleasant surprise; a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the Stones unparalleled catalog that inspires a lot of smiles and successfully captures the musical interplay that keeps the band young in spirit.
I think the Rolling Stones are undoubtedly the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time, because they, more than any other band, epitomize and embody the form of rock itself; a irresistible synthesis of blues, soul and country with a heaping of sleazy sex, braggadocio and bad habits and attitude. (The Beatles may have been a greater, more magical musical entity, but the Stones were by far and away the better rock band.) The great critic Robert Christgau wrote the following about the band almost thirty years ago, and I think it still applies:
Only rock and roll? The Stones are the proof of the form. When the guitars and the drums and the voice come together in those elementary patterns that no one else has ever quite managed to simulate, the most undeniable excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn’t reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don’t like rock and roll itself.As a band in their sixties that emerged in the 60’s that still command a huge amount of attention, the Stones are an easy target for those who think they’ve long been irrelevant nostalgia mongers. Most of these opinions are from punk-influenced writers who miss the point. There’s nothing nostalgic about the Stones. There’s no “remember when” vibe like you would see at a doo-wop revival show, or a Poison/Def Leppard show at a county fair somewhere. Rather, the Stones emulate the blues, jazz and r&b artists they lionize - Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Solomon Burke, Count Basie (Charlie Watts’s favorite musician) and others, who just kept playing because it is what they did. The Stones continue to play because it’s what they do. They just play bigger venues and get paid better for it than just about everyone else.
And with all that said, “Shine A Light” documents the band playing better than anyone has a right to expect. Charlie Watts is still the great Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards have a gloriously jagged interplay on guitar that continues to evolve in the moment. (They might be playing songs they’ve been playing for 30-40 years, but I’ve never seen them play the same guitar parts the exact same way twice.) The band is simply playing some of the tightest, most driving rock they’ve ever played. (You don’t believe me? Put on a bootleg from the 1975 tour and then listen to the "Shine A Light" soundtrack. You’ll believe me then.)
What about Mick? Well, Mick’s the most problematic part of the movie (and the Stones themselves). Yes, he’s in incredible shape and yes, his energy is amazing. But Mick performs the songs as though he's wearing a mask; he doesn’t inhabit them emotionally and in his elusiveness, one is left a bit cold, wondering if Jagger feels any connection to anyone, or if he's even interested in the messiness of intimate connections. I can't help but think that it's not an accident that the Stones song "Connection" (featured in the film) is sung by Keith, not Mick.
What makes “Shine A Light” work are a lot of little moments: Charlie Watts looking into the camera in between songs and trying to grab a bit of a breather, acknowledging with his winded expression that this is hard fucking work, and then going back to drumming magnificently; Buddy Guy’s appearance for an explosive version of “Champagne and Reefer,” which inspires the Stones back to their roots as a blues band, playing with passion and an obvious reverence for Guy that is downright moving; and during “Faraway Eyes,” when Mick and Keith share the microphone to harmonize together, the look of pure joy between them captures the fundamental truth about their relationship – they really do love each other, in spite of all of their petty feuding and bullshit.
Jack White acquits himself nicely in “Loving Cup,” hitting those sublime Keith Richards background vocal harmonies, all with an enormous smile on his face that I’ve never seen before from him. I’m a Christina Aguilera fan, but her appearance on “Live With Me” doesn’t work. She and Jagger have no chemistry (watching Jagger quickly discern that the duet isn’t working and then seeing what he does to try to make it work is to watch a professional doing his job) and while she’s got a powerful voice, she hasn’t learned how to use it effectively. Aguilera’s answer to everything is to over sing – it’s “Mariah Carey syndrome” at its worst.
To look for cultural relevance from the Rolling Stones at this point is a foolish exercise. Once upon a time, they were the kings of the jungle, transforming both music and culture at large. But that was a very long time ago. Now they are a well oiled, professional machine that on a good night, have some of the greatest rock songs ever written come spectacularly alive and make beautiful women just a little bit sexier and more beautiful when they dance to those indelible songs. Why do they continue to do what they do? In “Shine A Light,” Keith Richards reveals the answer to be very simple:
“We do it because we love it.”