Who's that standing outside the beacon Theatre in Manhattan after the 2006 (and, possibly, the 2,006th) concert by the Rolling Stones? Why, it's Martin Scorsese, instructing a camera operator to catch the action on the street and above. Gloriously above. The shot zooms upward from Scorsese to catch the crowd, then higher and faster so we see the marquee, then the neighborhood; and faster still, in an astronaut's view of receding Earth, until we can see all of Manhattan island illuminated by a full moon that dissolves into the Stones' jolly red-tongue logo. In Shine a Light, the master of the impossible tracking shot has topped himself again.
Scorsese is revered by many as the foremost American picturemaker of his generation. From 1973's Mean Streets through Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas up to his 2006 The Departed (for which he finally won a Best Director Oscar), he has blended elegance with agitation, depicted the anomie of the cunning, late--20th century brute in classical style. Though he's earned his renown with these movies, he's equally adept directing documentaries. Making films like Shine a Light is a vacation from his vocation--an escape from the straitjacket of narrative and from the rigidities of the Hollywood system.
Shine a Light, which opens in theaters April 4, is Scorsese's fourth rockumentary. His others: The Last Waltz (1978), a record of the final concert given by The Band; Feel Like Going Home (2003), his affectionate retroglance at old Delta bluesmen; and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), a compilation of interviews and performances from Dylan's early years. All these films speak to Scorsese's fervent belief in movies as music. You see this in his studio pictures: in the operatic intensity of the acting and the camerawork and in their use of music, from arias to doo-wop, to underline an emotion. But he's also done a political doc (the 1970 Street Scenes, about antiwar protests), a loving portrait of his parents (Italianamerican, in 1974), a study of a very colorful friend (American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, 1978), a doc on couturier Giorgio Armani (Made in Milan, 1990) and epic valentines to old American and Italian cinema. His curiosity is insatiable. What he loves, he films.
Scorsese is just one of many top directors who have found release in reality. In World War II, virtually all of Hollywood was mobilized to churn out propaganda films, and directors such as John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler and George Stevens (all, eventually, Academy Award winners) enlisted in the armed forces and made tough, smart, often inspiring films of fighting men. More recent directors, like Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee and Michael Apted, have alternated studio movies and important nonfiction projects. For a decade after Titanic, James Cameron gave up Hollywood to make deep-sea documentaries.
Why should big-time directors make "small" docs? Because the discipline has aerobic artistic benefits--it's a workout for different muscles. To simplify a bit: directors of fiction films make things happen; directors of documentaries find things happening and shape them into a story. In a fiction film, the essential tool is the camera; in documentaries, it's the editing table. That is where the snippets of real life, even if staged as a concert, are analyzed and alchemized into a movie that, if the stars are aligned, entertains the audience as much as any Harry Potter blockbuster.
That's where Scorsese is king. His Hollywood films may be sprawling, but his best docs feel both organic and perfectly condensed. No Direction Home, even at 31/2 hr., seems the ideal length to capture the gentle, questing mood of early-'60s folk and Dylan's rapid rise to eminence.
As immaculate a tailor as Armani, Scorsese makes the tone of each film fit its characters. American Boy, like its subject, is fast, almost frantic, a movie on a cocaine jag. Italianamerican, a conversation with his parents about their lives in New York City's Little Italy and their roots in Sicily, has an earthy, homemade vibe--not surprising since it was made in the home he grew up in. The closing credits include his mom's recipe for spaghetti sauce.
The concerns of Scorsese's docs reflect those of his fiction films: the yearning for roots, the twisted bonds of friendship, the lure of the forbidden, the appreciation of craftsmanship. The nonrock docs are such a crucial part of his artistic life, it's a shame they're not widely available. Where's an essential DVD when you need one?
As Years Go By early in his career, Scorsese helped edit two rock docs, Woodstock and Elvis on Tour, which honed the sense of musical and dramatic rhythm that informs all his films and which he could apply with full force to the Stones assignment.
Shine a Light begins as its own making-of documentary. In the preconcert planning, Scorsese asks for a playlist of the songs; he gets it just as the show starts. Mick Jagger frets that the moving cameras will distract the audience and that the lighting will throw too much heat on the stage. (As even the director realizes, "We cannot burn Mick Jagger.") During the concert, the singer shouts, as if to Scorsese, "These lights are burnin' up my ass!" He suffers for his art, but there's a film to be shot. Basically, Mick wants to give a great performance, and Marty wants to make a great movie.
It isn't; it can't be. Shine a Light isn't the record of a unique event, so it's not on the exalted level of The Last Waltz. But it has its own fascination. The film is less about the music than about the dedication of show-biz troupers--about doing your job, year after year, as if it's your joy. Jagger and Keith Richards, no less than Ethel Merman and Henny Youngman, have the veteran performers' love of pleasing an audience with routines that used to be antic but are now antique. By now, surely, they have performed Satisfaction more times than Judy Garland sang Over the Rainbow. Yet Jagger sells it with the vigor of a Baptist preacher in a backwoods tent. In these moments, the shock of the old is that he and Richards--and guitarist Ron Wood and drummer Charlie Watts--make it sound new. (Ish.)