THE BACK PAGES

ROCK 'N' ROLL GOODFELLAS

After years of packing his movies with the heat of the Rolling Stones, Martin Scorsese finally gets to shoot Mick's mob

BRIAN D. JOHNSON April 14 2008
THE BACK PAGES

ROCK 'N' ROLL GOODFELLAS

After years of packing his movies with the heat of the Rolling Stones, Martin Scorsese finally gets to shoot Mick's mob

BRIAN D. JOHNSON April 14 2008

THE BACK PAGES

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ROCK 'N' ROLL GOODFELLAS

After years of packing his movies with the heat of the Rolling Stones, Martin Scorsese finally gets to shoot Mick's mob

film

Perched on a stool, Keith Richards sits bent over a 12-string acoustic guitar and picks out a delicate, childlike melody. Standing next to him on the stage of Manhattan’s venerable Beacon Theatre, Mick Jagger sings As Tears Go By. Rarely performed by the Rolling Stones, this gentle ballad was one of the first songs he and Richards ever wrote, in 1964. Embarrassed by it at the time, they gave it to Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, who made it a hit. Now, dredged out of the past, the song takes on vaguely creepy overtones tones as Jagger carves out each syllable with precise, coldblooded diction: It is the evening of the day/ I sit and watch the childrenplay/Smilingfaces I can see /But not for me...

Drained of sentiment, what was once a flower-child ditty acquires a new subtext of predatory voyeurism. And as the camera catches Jagger in brittle profile, his face looks suddenly unfamiliar. The cheeks are gaunt, the nose bent, the legendary lips drawn tight as he brings a saloon twang to a jaded lament for childhood innocence.

This is Mick Jagger through the eyes of Martin Scorsese. An unrepentant Stones fan, Scorsese has used their music so often in his mob movies, they’re like his mafia house band.

Now, with a new concert documentary, the director has finally consummated his crush. Shot in luscious 35 mm, Shine A Light is a love letter to the Stones. But it’s also a Scorsese film. With disarming camera angles and quicksilver cutting, it reveals sides of Jagger and Richards we haven’t seen before. And as the movie finds a narrative in the music, it becomes clear Mick and Keith are the story—the odd couple at the heart of that burlesque character drama known as the Rolling Stones.

Before the curtain went up on the first of two concerts at the Beacon, Scorsese was fretting. He had 16 cameras in place, half a dozen manned by a dream team of Oscar-winning cinematographers, guys who had shot pictures like There Will Be Blood, Lord of the Rings

mdBraveheart. But as showtime approached, Scorsese claimed he didn’t know what the opening number would be. Jagger, auteur of the set list, had kept the director in the dark. With the first two slashing chords from Keith Richards’ guitar, the first song was instantly familiar. Jagger burst onstage singing/wrap-

ingJackFlash, and the choice made perfect sense. It was JumpingJackFlash that ushered in Robert De Niro as he made his barroom entrance with a babe on each arm in Mean Streets, the film that made Scorsese famous 35 years ago.

Ever since, Scorsese and the Stones have been joined at the hip. No filmmaker has used the band’s music more compulsively or effectively. “Whatever I do with movies and in movies began with listening to the Rolling Stones,” the director admits. “In fact, my films would be unthinkable without them.”

No kidding. In Goodfellas, the action is

virtually propelled by Stones’ songs—from Gimme Shelter goosing the adrenalin as dealers shovel cocaine with playing cards, to Monkey Man quickening the hysteria as Ray Liotta rips open a bag of blow that’s been smuggled with a baby now lying on the bed in blissful innocence. In Casino, De Niro and Sharon Stone swap hard cash and cold kisses to Heart of Stone, one of five Stones songs on the soundtrack. And in The Departed, Scorsese brings back the banshee wail of Gimme Shelter to introduce a satanic Jack Nicholson stepping out of the shadows. “Mick Jagger recently said that Shine a Light was the first movie I made that does not have Gimme Shelter in it,” says Scorsese, sounding as sheepish about being a

diehard Stones fan as anyone else. “But believe me, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

In movies that bathe the screen with vicious brutality and Catholic guilt, Scorsese has adopted the Stones’ rude signature as a personal sacrament. He uses it to conjure an underworld of sex and drugs and dirty dreams -the sound of characters being led into temptation and shattered by sin. Now, after a career of cutting films to the Stones, he has finally cut a film of the Stones.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

‘Whatever I do with movies and in movies began with listening to the Stones’

• True to its title, Shine a Light

doesn’t catch the dark menace that drew Scorsese to their music decades ago. And it lacks the ambition and breadth of The Last Waltz, Scorsese’s epic farewell to The Band. Shine a Light is no swan song, just a fleeting close-up of the band that won’t die, captured in mid-tour. It’s almost a pure concert film, with no backstage dirt. Executiveproduced by the Stones, it feels like more of an inside job than an independent documentary. But it delivers an unusually intimate and intriguing portrait of the band at work.

They are, of course, no strangers to the screen. Whether or not they’re the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band, there’s no ques-

tion they are the most durable, and iconic. And no band has been more deeply enshrined in cinema. Auteurs from Jean-Luc Godard to Hal Ashby have made movies of the Stones. The Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, which captured a murder as it unfolded in front of the stage at Altamont, is still the ultimate rock documentary. And through the revolutionary intimacy of the vérité close-up, it made movie stars of rock stars. (Albert Maysles, 81, serves as one of Scorsese’s shooters.) Then came Robert Frank’s backstage romp, C-ksucker Blues (1972), a raw glimpse of the Stones’ bacchanalian antics that they hit with a lawsuit, allowing the film to be shown just once a year, and only with the director present.

But the boys have nothing to fear from Shine A Light, aside from the spectacle of well-cured flesh caught in unforgiving closeups, in cruel contrast to archival clips of the

band in its infancy, which serve as comic relief. (Weighing the band’s future, an absurdly soft and pretty young Mick says, “I never thought we’d be doing it for two years.”) There are just a few bits of backstage footage leading up to the concert, including Mick and Keith meeting Bill Clinton, along with Hillary and her mother—a weird moment of politesse in which our man of wealth and taste is as

well-mannered as the Queen Mum.

But the film also captures one of the more proficient Stones performances ever committed to film. Originally Jagger asked Scorsese to direct an IMAX spectacle, like At the Max (l99l), and suggested shooting a mammoth show in Rio. Scorsese persuaded him to stage a small concert in New York City. The result is a portrait of the band on a human scale. Between the nimble camera moves and alert editing, the filmmaking seems wired to the energy of the music, as the Stones rise to the occasion,

breathing life into an ancient repertoire.

The set list is studded with hits, from Satisfaction to Sympathy for the Devil. But there are obscurities, such as the raunchy Champagne and Reefer, performed with blues great Buddy Guy, who pushes the band into overdrive with a blistering guitar jam. Jagger sings a hillbilly duet of Loving Cup with Jack White of the White Stripes, who looks thrilled to

be driving daddy’s car. And on Live With Me, Mick joins Christina Aguilera for a scorching bump-and-grind. It’s a lighthearted show, and Jagger seems most at home with songs that feature blue streaks of declamatory selfsatire, from the sleazy outrage of an alimonywracked rock star in Some Girls to the holyroller rant in Faraway Eyes.

At 64, Mick is a freak of nature. He still has a healthy head of hair and moves his body with the fierce syncopation of an adolescent on angel dust. But behind the slinky riddle of flashing abs and popping biceps, the man doesn’t betray much emotion. This is a sharply contained performance with barely a glimpse of vulnerability. Even when the band’s tempos are sliding around like wine glasses on the Titanic, he keeps it tight

At 64, Mick still moves with the syncopation of an adolescent on angel dust

and does the job, a consummate showman who could only be accused trying too hard.

Richards, on the other hand, makes a calculated fetish of carelessness. Treating the stage like an overstuffed armchair, he slouches behind the beat, and tends his guitar like a derelict Zen master, ignoring all but the essential notes. And the tension between him and Mick—the louche pirate and the hyperkinetic control freak—is the key to the Stones’ unique chemistry.

These are, of course, personas. Over the years, I’ve interviewed both men several times, and they’re not quite what you’d expect.

Physically, they both seem shrunken. Jagger is the more wary and elusive subject.

Deflecting questions with faux naïveté and noblesse oblige, he takes delight in deflating the myth and hype that congeals around the band, even though he’s the rock star/CEO who turned his lips into a brand. Richards actually seems to believe in the Rolling Stones—the

romance of the gang—and likes to enrich its legend. Despite the seasick slur, he’s the more voluble and articulate of the two, a dab hand with an outrageous sound bite. In a recent GQ interview, this man, famous for treating his body as a substance-abuse laboratory, confessed he draws the line at cheese: “Fermented milk,” he said, “is not the ideal choice for everyday eating.”

By now the band’s three surviving original members seem to have their roles sorted out: Mick is the head; Charlie Watts, gentleman drummer, is the heart, and Keith is the soul. In concert, while the superhuman Jagger tirelessly works the crowd, Richards is cast as the shambolic, painfully human unsung hero.

And because the movie comes down to a character study of Mick and Keith, those moments when Keith shyly steps into the light are pivotal. All it takes is a cheeky harmony on Faraway Eyes to bring a cheer from the crowd. And when Richards sheds his guitar, dons a long black coat and sings You Got the Silver, accompanied by Ronnie Wood

on slide, it’s like watching the lame walk. As he hits all the notes, and more, with a sweet, aching vocal, there’s a uncanny sense of redemption—an oasis of emotion in a show that unfolds as a ruthless, well-engineered cabaret.

With Shine A Light, you realize you’re not watching a concert, you’re watching a movie. The magic of film lies in the close-up, and this documentary is a fiction of selected and

magnified gestures. Even the sound is a roller coaster of close-ups, pulling focus on vocals and guitar lines with dramatic flourish. The viewer doesn’t hear the same thing as the audience at the Beacon Theatre. You can make out the words. All the words. Listening to the Rolling Stones, live or on record, used to be about immersing yourself in a riot of sound and imagining what was being sung. Here, Mick seems more enamoured with enunciating lyrics than turning them to taffy. Once he was all lips; now he’s all mouth.

It’s hard to say why Jagger keeps putting the Stones on film. As an occasional actor, perhaps he’s a movie star manqué. Or just trying to nail the legacy after all these years. And he’s found a devoted accomplice, moonstruck in Manhattan with the mob of his dreams. At the beginning and end of the film, Scorsese appears in comic cameos as a hapless director trying to control traffic—not unlike a panicked maître d’ who fears the

kitchen is out of control. It’s a conceit, of course, but with a grain of truth. And, punctuating the film’s ending with a grace note that would be unfair to reveal, Scorsese implies that the movie’s real auteur is not himself, or Jagger, but the Rolling Stones, a corporation that’s bigger than both of them. M

ON THE WEB: To read Brian D. Johnson’s previous interviews with Jagger and Richards go to www.macleans.ca/stones