There's no director more qualified to shoot a Rolling Stones concert film than Martin Scorsese, who has used the band's music to galvanizing effect on many occasions, from Robert De Niro's swaggering entrance to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in Mean Streets to his "Gimme Shelter" intro to The Departed. And yet the question lingers: Why now? The band is at least a quarter-century past its prime, so how urgent and relevant could its five-billionth rendition of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" possibly be? And a high-ticket benefit event for the Clinton Foundation at New York's Beacon theater ain't exactly Altamont, is it? The chances of something spontaneous happening in such cloistered environs are about as likely as someone flubbing their lines at a Cats matinee.
Of course, Scorsese knows all these limitations up front, so he's turned Shine A Light into a buoyant, light-hearted encore of a movie, paying tribute to the Stones as indefatigable elder statesmen who still go out every night and put on a great show. Since this gig is the furthest thing from the Stones at Altamont, the film is the furthest thing from Gimme Shelter: planned out well in advance, controlled as a lab experiment, and choreographed within an inch of its life. With a murderer's row of cinematographers at his command—including Robert Richardson (Casino), Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), John Toll (The Thin Red Line), Emmanuel Lubezki (Children Of Men), and Gimme Shelter co-director Albert Maysles on handheld—Scorsese trained 16 cameras on the specially constructed stage, and plotted each song like a conductor. (To keep things interesting, the Stones responded by withholding and then revising the set list.)
Scorsese opens the film with a little too much throat-clearing: Though footage of director and band preparing for the big night is fitfully amusing, it gives the impression of veterans patting each other on the back prematurely. Still, it sets an affectionate tone for an evening that balances spirited performances of all the expected hits with a few curveballs and some terrific one-song cameos from Jack White, Christina Aguilera, and Buddy Guy. Calling the Stones "professionals" may be the ultimate insult in the rock world, where impulsiveness is valued over proficiency, but it's astonishing to see Mick Jagger perform a wrinkled standard like "Start Me Up" as if it were the first time he'd ever sung it onstage. Shine A Light pays tribute to the band's essential agelessness.