NEW YORK — Mick JAGGER, dressed in lean, tailored perfection, was encamped recently in the bright, two-level tower suite atop the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, where he welcomed a visitor by offering a cup of English breakfast tea. Later that same day, 21 floors lower, Keith Richards greeted the same scribe with a rasping laugh and, with a Marlboro red and skull rings at his fingertips, held up a glass of vodka and orange soda on the rocks. "It's called a nuclear waste. You want one?"
The music industry may be a diminished and uncertain mess this century, but the Rolling Stones, bless 'em, still don't disappoint or stray from the expected iconography; if anything, Richards seems to be going back in time with his pirate curtsy and eternal bluesman leer while Jagger, the whippet-thin rock star who once attended the London School of Economics, is the imperious archduke in full control. When his visitor pointed out that Jagger seems to be single-handedly keeping the Stones together through sheer force of will, the 64-year-old sighed through a smirk. "Oh," he said, "do you think?"
It was in the same room at the Carlyle a few years ago during a bad storm that a skeptical Jagger met with Martin Scorsese and an early production team to discuss the prospects of a concert film. The result is "Shine a Light," which arrives in selected theaters (and on IMAX screens) Friday and may boast the most accomplished team ever assembled to document a rock show. Scorsese brought in Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson ("JFK," "The Aviator") to lead a team of fellow Oscar winners in John Toll, Andrew Lesnie and Robert Elswit, whose collective resume includes "There Will Be Blood," "Braveheart" and the "Lord of the Rings" franchise.
The "Shine a Light" team used swooping cameras to capture the Stones in the intimate confines of the Beacon Theatre, the grand old 2,800-seat palace on Broadway. For the film, the band tears through a 22-song set list with the usual-suspect hits ("Brown Sugar," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Start Me Up"), some surprise excavations (like the rare revisiting of "As Tears Go By" with Richards on acoustic 12-string) and some guest stars (Jack White, Buddy Guy and, oddly, Christina Aguilera).
The finished film presents the Stones in high energy and bottled up on the stage of the vintage neo-Grecian theater. There's also some odd off-stage material--the completely artificial booking was presented as a fundraiser and it was attended by the Clintons who greeted the band before the music played; as the band sniggers, the political family is presented as the square backstage admirers, the role Kevin Costner played in that old Madonna documentary. Scorsese appears on camera a lot, too, fretting and cajoling the band to give him a set list.
Jagger said afterward that the crowd was "not a good one, they were nice people, but not the kind of audience that is going to stir up the band." His guitarist said the cheering and dancing in aisles was unimportant. "The show was a good one," the 64-year-old Richards said, "but you have to know that it's not just about the band, right? It's about Martin Scorsese . . . it's a rock show painted by a Rembrandt."
It was a portrait that took some time, mostly because of the schedules of the principals. The show was staged in fall 2006. No one was more involved than Jagger, who was a persistent presence in every stage of the film. During the editing, he was the one pushing to keep the finished product lean. For instance, the film is peppered with vintage snippets of interviews with the Stones from the 1960s and 1970s, and many of them are amusing and some are even heartwarming.
"It's got a light touch," Jagger said. "It's not some gloomy thing. There was a temptation to put more of those interviews in because they're funny. But during the editing, I said, 'No, cut it there. That's enough.' " One reason was to keep the momentum of the stage performance going, but Jagger said a band with so much history needs to resist anything that starts to feel like a museum piece. "People have seen a lot of that before," the singer said. Then, with an expression of mild weariness, Jagger said he still wasn't sure the Stones needed another film document. "There's quite a shelf full, already, don't you think?"
Tarnish on their track record
There's always been a whiff of danger to the Stones, of course, and it comes through in their history on camera. Most infamously, the 1970 film "Gimme Shelter" by the Maysles brothers documented the nightmarish scene the previous year at Altamont Speedway, where the Hells Angels were hired as security but went on a rampage. One 18-year-old concert-goer was stabbed and stomped to death.