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Shine a Light and Leatherheads 

The geezers are alright in Shine a Light; Leatherheads is screwball without the screws

click to enlarge Three old men and two axes: Buddy Guy, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts keep the time. - PHOTO BY KEVIN MAZUR/ PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • Photo by Kevin Mazur/ Paramount Pictures
  • Three old men and two axes: Buddy Guy, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts keep the time.

I realize the title of Martin Scorsese's concert documentary Shine a Light comes from a Rolling Stones song, but did no one consider how awfully ironic it is? Lend an ear to the Stones as their music comes thundering at you from a darkened stage and you get the sensation of virile, endless youth. But shine a light on the musicians and—ouch.

"Time is on my side," Mick Jagger once sang. Well, time may be on the side of his music, his bank account and his career longevity, but it sure ain't on the side of his face.

I was prepared to see Mick and the boys looking older, but the facial images in the verite opening of Scorsese's doc still stunned me. These guys look beyond old, more like melting gargoyles in some F/X-heavy beyond-the-crypt horror film. Has Spielberg thought of inviting them to play awakened Egyptian pharaohs in the new Indiana Jones movie? Jagger's visage recalls images sent back by a space probe of some ancient, ravaged planet sundered by unforgiving ravines and collapsing mountain ranges.

Yes, I know it's rude to shine a critical light on the physical effects of our idols' aging. I also realize that we're all getting older, and that the most politic thing for me to say next is that, appearances notwithstanding, the Stones still cavort and rock like antic adolescents. That is true—remarkably so, actually—and it's part of what makes Shine a Light such an engaging, satisfying cinematic concert for anyone not totally Stones-averse.

But it also occurs to me that Shine a Light is really two films. One is the concert movie just described: You get to spend two hours in New York's Beacon Theater watching this superlative band kick out the jams under the gaze of Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson and a battery of world-class cameramen. In this film, you focus on the music and the immediate experience and try to ignore the evidence of time's ravages.

The other film—call it Meta-Light—happens in the darkened theater of your mind well after you've left the cinema, and it is not about music but about movies, and the Stones' remarkable career therein. In this film, the ghosts of the past are ever-present, and mortality isn't an awkward intrusion; it's an inevitable theme.

The Stones, after all, never jibed with the mood of jubilant optimism that prevailed when they first stepped onto the world stage. It was well after the first two Beatles movies incarnated that mid-'60s moment of Blakean Innocence that Mick and Co. provided the retort of agonizing Experience. Shadowed by the already spectral presence of Brian Jones, the two great films they shot in 1968, Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One and Michael Lindsay-Hogg's The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus, offer the song "Sympathy for the Devil" as an incantatory anthem for the year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, with the Stones insisting on their own and their audience's complicity ("well, after all, it was you and me") in the mayhem raging from Memphis to Hue to Chicago.

But it was at the end of 1969 with the death of a young black man named Meredith Hunter—stabbed by Hells Angels within feet of where the Stones were performing at the disastrous Altamont free concert—that the (self-) accusation became an incriminating reality. In Gimme Shelter, the brilliant 1970 documentary by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts stare at the footage of Hunter's murder as it's repeated over and over on a Movieola, their expressions of mixed horror and fascination anticipating the film audience's own.

Are the superannuated musicians' faces we see in Shine a Light a kind of collective portrait of Dorian Gray registering the moral costs of too many diabolical sympathies (ours as well as theirs)? Or are these simply four old geezers showing the effects of decades of dedicated debauchery?

Where the first of those possibilities furthers the self-generated mythology that made the Stones such a potent icon to a generation of rock (and movie) fans, the second reminds us that, once the myths have faded or been stripped away, what we're left with is four aging entertainers vamping through their song catalogue. (Perhaps it's the tension between the two possibilities that gives Shine a Light its strange resonance, the sense that it may constitute an unwitting, somewhat inchoate cinematic last testament for "the world's greatest rock and roll band.")

Though Scorsese is very famously an avid and erudite cinephile, he does little to evoke the Stones' cinematic mythology, apart from involving Al Mayles as an on-camera cameraman. Instead, he dips into the band's visual archives to cull bits of old interviews and newsreels that show us the tyro Stones in all their stylish, youthful beauty and insouciance. In Shine a Light, these flashbacks—which accentuate the undertow of mortality—are periodically interspersed between songs, almost as if to give the audience the kind of breather that the musicians themselves seldom get.

Introduced by Bill Clinton, himself an icon of self-aggrandizing moral ambivalence, the Stones come onstage and proceed to rip the joint as expertly as they have for more than four decades, supported occasionally by a horn section and backup singers and joined for duets by Jack White III and Christina Aguilera—both undistinguished and superfluous—as well as the spectacular Buddy Guy, whose romp with Jagger on "Champagne and Reefer" is one of the show's blistering high points.

The concert's set list is discussed by Jagger and a jokily nervous Scorsese in the film's intro. Every person I've talked to who's seen the film has had quibbles with the song choices. But that's what they are: quibbles. No need to dwell on them because each viewer will have a different take. Like Scorsese, I would love to have heard "Paint It Black" and a few other personal faves. But I was happy the film includes "Tumbling Dice" (another high point), "Brown Sugar" and an elegant acoustic "As Tears Go By."

Another delight is Keith Richards, who performs two songs mid-show. Though he now looks like a crinkly Pirates of the Caribbean figurine—and still smokes like a chimney!—Keef doffs his guitar and croons "You Got the Silver" with the full-voiced suavity of Dean Martin. My one gripe with Scorsese is that he cuts away to interviews during Richards' second song, "Connection," a wonderful mid-'60s nugget.

The camerawork and editing during all of this is little short of dazzling. Considering that Scorsese used 18 cameras, it's remarkable that they are so fluid and unobtrusive. But even more extraordinary is the movie's sound, which may be the most sophisticated and thrillingly "live" that I've ever heard in a concert film (it's markedly superior to the overly processed audio in U2's recent 3-D concert film).

The sound, thankfully, does full justice to the razor-sharp musicianship of Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charley Watts. But what's most amazing about the film overall is the unabated energy and unstinting commitment of Jagger. That someone of retirement age can perform at full-bore as he does would be impressive if it ran only for the length of one song. That he manages to keep the momentum up for close to two hours (apart from the break provided by Richards' solo turn) deserves some kind of citation in the Guinness Book of World Records. It really is staggering.

Indeed, Jagger's moves and stage sense are arguably more expertly audacious today than they were in Gimme Shelter. Ultimately the Stones may be remembered for the brilliance of their songwriting and record-making, but it's great that Shine a Light and other Stones concert docs provide a record of Jagger the pop shaman, surely one of the past century's great performers. Still svelte and long-haired, glimpsed from afar he could be a 20-year-old rock 'n' roll dervish. While the lights shone on his face decidedly contradict that impression, it's the incandescent velocity of his performance that you remember after the lights go down.

Shine a Light opens Friday in select theaters.

click to enlarge Renée Zellweger and George Clooney in Leatherheads - PHOTO BY MELINDA SUE GORDON/ UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/ Universal Pictures
  • Renée Zellweger and George Clooney in Leatherheads

George Clooney's Leatherheads, a genial, loping comedy about the very early days of pro football, takes place the mid-1920s, an era now distant to both living memory and pop-culture tradition. A few times in the movie mention is made of "Sgt. York," and I wondered what percentage of their 2008 audience the filmmakers expect to recall World War I hero Alvin York, or even the 1941 Howard Hawks movie about him.

The distance between Leatherheads' concerns and those of current audiences represents one kind of disconnect, I think. Another is suggested by the mention of Howard Hawks, who directed screwball comedies back when the form was virtually a fine art in Hollywood. Now, on the evidence of this film and others, it's a lost art.

Though set in a football milieu, Leatherheads is less a sports movie than a would-be screwball comedy in which Clooney (who stars as well as directs) plays an aging footballer matching wits and making whoopee with Renée Zellweger, as a devious reporter trying to dig the dirt on the faux-Sgt. York war record of the team's star recruit.

This premise has a certain, perhaps limited potential, and the film delivers on it in a number of adroit scenes that make the most of Clooney's self-effacing charms as a comic actor. But screwball comedy demands a special kind of energy in the execution and a sharp, off-kilter point of view, and both are largely absent here. That's a shame, because a good comedy would be a tonic as the economy keeps serving up other, unwelcome reminders of the 1920s.

Leatherheads opens Friday throughout the Triangle.


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