FILMS

Tower of power

With IMAX, the Stones are six storeys tall

Brian D. Johnson November 4 1991
FILMS

Tower of power

With IMAX, the Stones are six storeys tall

Brian D. Johnson November 4 1991

Tower of power

FILMS

With IMAX, the Stones are six storeys tall

Even for a hardened Stones fan, it sounds scary—the prospect of seeing Mick Jagger’s lips and Keith Richards’s wrinkles magnified on a movie screen six storeys high. But The Rolling Stones “At the Max”—which opens at IMAX theatres in six Canadian cities this fall—is more than tolerable. It is, in fact, the most spectacular concert movie ever made.

And the staggering scale of the IMAX screen seems naturally suited to a group that has come to be known as the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world. “At the Max” is the Mount Rushmore of concert films. For the Stones, it marks yet another triumph in a 29-year career. And for the world of corporate rock, the film offers a technical breakthrough that could revolutionize the concert business. Pop music has finally found a medium to match the hyperbole of its image.

The connection was forged by two Toronto-based entertainment companies: Imax Corp., which invented the giant-screen technology 20 years ago, and the BCL Group, which produced the Stones’ 1989-1990 Steel Wheels tour. Shattering all records for live music events, the tour drew 6.2 million fans and grossed $250 million on three continents. BCL president Michael Cohl convinced the Stones and Imax officials to work together. Jagger and Richards screened two examples of short IMAX films, one about the space shuttle and another about beavers. “At the Max, ” which cost $11.4 million to produce and has a promotional budget of $4 million, is the first full-length IMAX feature. And, as Richards notes in an interview on videotape released by the promoters, for Imax to embark on such a project was “adventurous—it’s kind of a departure from beavers.”

Until now, the giant-screen format has been used mostly for science and nature films. But with the new venture, it has crossed the threshold into pop culture. Imax and BCL executives have already talked to other major music acts interested in following the Stones’ lead. “People are now seeing this and imaginations are running wild,” Imax president Fred Klinkhammer said in an interview. “Record producers and high-end performers—the Michael Jacksons of the world—are going to want to see this. What we offer them is a unique form of immortality—we capture them in the purest

form possible.” Klinkhammer added that he also envisions IMAX versions of lavish Broadway musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and Cats. “Andrew Lloyd Webber has talked to us on and off about Phantom,” he said.

Meanwhile, construction of new IMAX the-

atres is booming. There are now 77 around the world, including the company’s OMNIMAX variation, which uses a spherical screen. Another 25 theatres are due to open next year. Canada, meanwhile, has IMAX theatres in Montreal, Hull, Que., Toronto, Niagara Falls, Ont., Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver. The company estimates that last year, more than 130 million viewers in 15 countries visited IMAX theatres—most of which are located in theme parks, museums and world fairs.

The success of IMAX has sparked competition, notably from two California-based compa-

mes, Iwerks Entertainment and World Odyssey. Iwerks specializes in theme-park movie rides with seats that move, but is now expanding into other huge-screen formats. With the expiry of the patent on the original 1970 IMAX technology two years ago, World Odyssey has developed similar camera and projector systems. And it plans to build two theatres, in Missouri and Arizona, that could show IMAX films. Klinkhammer says that he expects competition to increase, “but I think we will continue to dominate the marketplace.” IMAX is a pioneer in innovative cinema— including the recent development of a radically improved 3-D projection system. But with the high-profile Stones feature, the company may now begin to interest Hollywood. British filmmaker Julian Temple, who co-directed “At the Max, ” told Maclean ’sr. “There is a future for

spectacular cinema. The more people watch movies at home, and the smaller the screens get, the more they want to watch things that are totally overwhelming—like a Terminator 2, which could be filmed in an IMAX format.” For his part, Klinkhammer said: “My view is more conservative. I think we’ll do a number of these concert films over the next few years, and then something that already exists—say, Phantom. A dramatic feature will happen when a Spielberg says, ‘I’ll do this but only in IMAX.’ ” A Terminator movie would be difficult to shoot in IMAX because of all the stunts and special

effects, he added. “But a Dances with Wolves would have been perfect.” For now, IMAX has proven itself as an exciting new medium for pop music. Its gigantism seems well matched to rock, which is, after all, based on the concept of amplification. “At the Max” was shot last summer at massive concerts in East Berlin, London and Turin, Italy. It is a straight performance film, featuring 15 songs. The sound is loud, lucid 48-track digital stereo. And the high-resolution IMAX image—from frames 10 times larger than the 35-mm film used for conventional feature movies—is sensational. “It’s a new animal,” said Temple. “I think it will be ferocious in its effect on audiences.” Concert movies have not been especially successful in the past. Some took on unusual significance as documentaries portraying an era. Gimme Shelter (1970) showed the Wood-

stock dream dissolve in violence at a Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California. The Last Waltz(1978) served as an elegiac swan song for The Band. As a musical experience, however, a 35-mm concert movie is a pale substitute for the real thing. Its limitations are sadly evident in the drabness of Get Back, a new movie documenting Paul McCartney’s 1989-1990 world tour.

But “At the Max”is, in some ways, better than being there. The sound is superior. The

seats are more comfortable. The tickets— ranging from $12.50 to $17—are about half the price of a live Stones show. And the view is so extraordinary that the distance between the audience and the stage seems to disappear. Because the screen is so large, its edges escape the viewer’s peripheral vision.

The movie offers a remarkable balance between intimacy and scale. The angles captured by seven IMAX cameras range from a helicopter shot overlooking London’s huge Wembley Stadium to a close-up that catches Richards’s silver skull ring as his hand thrashes across his guitar. There is a scene of Jagger singing Sympathy for the Devil in a special-effects tempest of wind and smoke on a scaffold high above the stage. And, for 2000 Light Years from Home, the screen is filled with video images of the singer amplified into psychedelic

abstraction—like an immense, animated Andy Warhol portrait.

Although the 89-minute movie was cut from 80 miles of footage shot on five nights, it plays as a single compressed concert. After a year of touring, the band is in fighting trim. The music—dominated by such classics as Honky Tonk Women, You Can’t Always Get What You Want and a souped-up Satisfaction—has never sounded better. And, viewed at such close range, the Stones are fascinating. With

his ravaged features, Richards looks like rock’s answer to the Ancient Mariner. Jagger, meanwhile, plays the aerobic patrician. Moving through a kaleidoscope of martial contortions and arabesques, he switches from brocaded frock coats and shimmery jackets to a skimpy T-shirt that reveals a 47-year-old midriff as tight as a snare drum.

In the past, IMAX movies have avoided using close-ups or quick editing techniques for fear of overpowering the audience. But Temple, who has produced videos for the band, says that he and the Stones insisted on them. In fact, the close-ups are not extreme—“We didn’t go into the nostril hairs,” noted Temple. The director added that the Stones drew the line at letting the cameras film backstage, except for an intriguing scene of the band limbering up before the opening curtain. Jagger says that he had no interest in so-called rockumentary footage. “It’s such a cliché,” he says in a videotaped interview about the film. “You know, roadies tuning up guitars, girls in the comer, people shooting pool.” In any case, the technology would make it difficult to be a fly on the wall, said Temple—“IMAX is more like being a rhino on the wall.”

The awkwardness of the equipment posed a considerable challenge. Weighing 90 lb., an IMAX camera moves on a dolly the size of a small car. Says Jagger: “The best thing for a concert movie is to have the smallest camera, with the least people operating it, and the longest length of film. IMAX is completely the reverse of that—the biggest camera, the hugest amount of people with the shortest film length you can have. It’s a bit cumbersome.” But Temple says that the Stones were unusually accommodating. After performing a 2 Vi-hour concert, the band would go back on stage after the crowd had left and replay certain songs for the cameras. “You would never expect that,” said Temple. “Normally before the dust settles on the first limo, they’re out of there.”

Jagger and Richards were involved in all the key decisions surrounding the movie, according to the film-makers. And Richards forced the cancellation of the movie’s heavily promoted première at September’s Festival of Festivals in Toronto. “The sound mix wasn’t finished,” said Temple. “Keith is very obsessive, and quite rightly so, about his band’s sound. Mick was more open to showing it.” Both seem duly impressed by the final results. “It’s amazing to see your own left boot 30 foot long,” says Richards, bemused by the absurdity of it all. “You start off as a guitar player, and suddenly you’re peddling a spectacle.”

But with IMAX, the Stones may still have trouble reaching all their fans. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which houses the only screen there, has declined to show the movie. Consequently, the film’s producers are exploring the possibility of building a temporary IMAX facility in Broadway’s Beacon Theatre. With a push from the Rolling Stones, a Canadian company that has made the “biggest” movies in the world now seems to be headed for the big time.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON