catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16


Capturing uncertainty

Martin Scorcese has had a hand in some of the greatest rock n’ roll movies ever made.  He was one of the editors of Woodstock, the classic four-hour document of a three-day music festival marking the rise of America’s countercultural movement.  Scorcese also directed The Last Waltz, the ultimate concert film featuring The Band, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris and the Staples Singers among others.  Recently the director returned to films about music with an episode for a PBS documentary on the Blues and a two-part Bob Dylan retrospective called No Direction Home.   He is also working on a project for a 2010 release on the Beatles’ George Harrison. 

Scorcese’s most recent release, Shine a Light, is another concert film, this time featuring the Rolling Stones.  I saw it at the IMAX theater on Chicago’s Navy Pier.  Despite my fears that a 50 foot-high image of Keith Richards might give me nightmares, the amazing surround sound, handclaps and cheers had a comforting wrap-around effect that made me feel safely insecure in the swinging arms of Mick Jagger and company. 

Always looking for the most interesting way to tell the story, Scorcese builds his drama around the set list, a device that reveals the underlying philosophy of the Stones’ art form.  As a filmmaker, Scorcese wants to know what songs the band is going to play so he can know where to point the cameras and how to highlight the narrative of the show.  But Jagger won’t give him the final set list until an hour before they go on stage, thus setting up the conflict between film and rock music. 

Ultimately, Scorcese has to give in to the spontaneous improvisatory energy of rock n’ roll.  Using old interview footage, Scorcese reminds us that the Stones have always worked this way, reveling in the surprises that come from living in the moment, resisting interviewers who want to put them in a box, trying to stay out of discussions about religion and politics that might pigeon-hole them, not making hard and fast predictions about their own futures.  The band members show themselves to be masters of whatever unexpected moment comes their way and this, it turns out, is what makes their performances so entertaining.

The delicate dance of planning for an unknown future and taking things as they come is the lesson Scorcese himself learns throughout the film.  After the opening 15 minutes in which our beloved, be-spectacled director wrings his hands and complains about his lack of control, the show abruptly begins and Scorcese’s brilliant team of cinematographers are thrust into the madness of the show, not knowing what’s going to happen next.  Scorcese’s artful editing tells the story of a director and his camera crew trying their best to keep up with the moment that’s unfolding in real time.  Jagger’s face goes in and out of focus as he sings the famous words “…what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game” from “Sympathy for the Devil.”  The camera tries to capture the devil himself in the song, but Jagger just won’t hold still.

The result of Scorcese’s work is that the Rolling Stones themselves shine through in a way that finally documents rock’n’roll not just from the perspective of the audience, but as it feels for a rock band itself who bravely rush onto a stage where anything can happen and often does.  The final scene might suggest that the director had this all planned out from the beginning.  As the camera follows the singer backstage and out the door of the Beacon Theatre in New York, there’s Scorcese again, directing the camera up for a gorgeous long shot of New York City under an impossibly full moon.  It is the first sense of repose (and perhaps a little transcendence) that we get throughout the whole film.  Scorcese is in control again at last, but he certainly has learned a valuable lesson!

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