The great moment of revelation in Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles' 1970 portrait of the Rolling Stones tour that ended so disastrously at Altamont, was the look on Mick Jagger's face as he sat watching footage of a Hells Angel member repeatedly stabbing a man in front of the stage while the band played. The image that will live the longest from Shine a Light, the new Stones' concert film, is of Keith Richards' face as he mischievously winks at a girl in front of the stage. The difference between the two films is not merely 38 years, but the gulf between real life and show biz.
The urge to conflate and contrast Shine a Light and Gimme Shelter begins with an inspired booking. Shine a Light opens this Friday, and the Clay Theatre's midnight movie series, The Late Night Picture Show, programmed Gimme Shelter for Friday and Saturday night (April 4 and 5, 2008). Although one is a documentary with some performance footage and the other is a full concert augmented by a few extraneous scenes, they are connected by the theory (to the degree you accept it) that a documentary is a true (if not accurate) picture regardless of its subject's attempts to present an untrue face. The Maysles brothers were exceedingly fortunate, not in recording a murder on-camera but in capturing Jagger in an unguarded moment. He appears quite ordinary, and slightly shaken, as he stares at the monitor, as if he's finally encountered something he can't manipulate, manage or shrug off.
Perhaps Jagger wasn't stunned by the images so much as thrown back to that free-fall moment of abject powerlessness when he tried to settle the crowd and banish the bad vibes. Wearing a ridiculous cape, stirring the ashes of "Sympathy for the Devil" while the audience fretted and whinnied, the most hypnotic rock star of the era -- and a dark prophet to many -- was revealed as a fop and an overrated actor a long way from home.
The Stones reprise "Sympathy for the Devil" in Shine a Light, swapping the apocalyptic tone for an audience-friendly toe-tapper with a call-and-response ("woo-woo") passage. And then, as if to bury once and for all any lingering association with Altamont, Hells Angels and rock 'n' roll catastrophe, they bring out Christina Aguilera to duet with Mick on "Live With Me." Yes, that's its own special brand of ignominy, but it's not one destined for immortality (regardless of the lifespan of digital media).
A quick word here about Martin Scorsese, the most-praised American filmmaker of our era, who is credited with directing Shine a Light but, like Alfred Hitchcock, will receive more attention for his extended cameo at the beginning of the film. He also turns up very briefly at the end, for reasons that only he knows; either Scorsese wants to steal the spotlight from the Stones, or he's mocking his well-known attachment to lengthy Steadicam shots. If nothing else, this movie (along with his American Express ad) confirms his status as a recognizable celebrity. If I were him, I'd settle for being an artist. But nobody asked me.
The Stones are the ones who really triumph in Shine a Light, recorded in October, 2006, at the Beacon Theatre in welcoming New York City, not by making powerful music so much as by avoiding with considerable ease any hint of self-parody or irrelevance. Jagger, in particular, is an entertainer whose greatest talent at this point may be convincing the audience that he's having a grand old time. Keith Richards, though, genuinely looks like there's no place he'd rather be than elbow-to-elbow onstage with fellow guitarist Ron Wood. (At least so long as he can fire up a steady stream of cigarettes.) Richards doesn't provide many highlights with his guitar playing, but nobody goes to a Stones show for their virtuosity.
You know if you roll with the Stones, and that will determine whether you see or avoid Shine a Light. For a slab of Stones with a sliver of truth, a dollop of insight and the flavor of San Francisco in the late '60s, Gimme Shelter is the ticket.
Shine a Light opens Friday, April 4, 2008. Gimme Shelter screens Friday and Saturday, April 4-5, 2008 at the Clay Theatre.