One charge that's rarely leveled at Martin Scorsese is that he's a conventional filmmaker. Which is why 'Shine a Light,' a passion project of the Oscar-winning director struggled for years to pull together, is quite the disappointment. Here's a rock documentary that's shockingly by-the-numbers, and that should have been anything but -- a rare up-close look an incendiary band that somehow paints them in shades of dull gray. Who would have ever imagined that the offstage antics of the Rolling Stones could be this boring?
Scorsese is no stranger to the rock doc (having helmed The Band's classic 'The Last Waltz'), and takes a similar approach here. We are introduced to the Stones as they're preparing for a pair of intimate shows as New York's Beacon Theatre, during their gargantuan "A Bigger Bang" tour. We watch the band go through rehearsals, argue over the setlist, and meet and greet the usual onslaught of big stars (you know the Stones are legends when Bill and Hillary Clinton stop by to hang for a soundcheck). Interspersed throughout are some vintage interview clips with the younger Stones (primarily designed to underline the amazing stamina and focus of these aging rock warhorses) and, most importantly, a selection of a dozen or so blistering live performances (also shot at the Beacon).
Unfortunately, none of this dull interplay sheds much light at all on the Rolling Stones. Let's face it, any doc about the behind-the-scenes lives of these famous hedonists should be laced with shocking decadence if it is to hold our attention. I want to see Keith Richards snorting a line of coke off some model's bare ass, not shaking Bill Clinton's hand or playing table football with Ronnie Wood. Likewise, the vintage interview clips soon grow monotonous, and are presented so quickly that they only offer surface insight. Even the backstage bickering is banal. Not that 'Shine a Light' should have been tabloid fodder, but if there is any lesson to be learned from highly-entertaining rockumentaries like Madonna's 'Truth or Dare,' it's that these things usually only excite when ego-driven stars are being bratty and diva-ish. 'Shine a Light' makes the Stones look uncomfortably like what they are -- an aging band of capitalist rockers doling out the jukebox hits for the faithful, solely for the kicks and the money.
What barely earns 'Shine a Light' the price of admission is the concert sequences. Originally presented in IMAX, it's here that Scorsese rips off the shackles of formal conservatism and shoots the scenes as you would expect him too -- with great, fluid camera work and plenty of powerful, sweaty close-ups. The band is also in muscular musical form, and these clips rock hard -- these guys may be dinosaurs (and Richards completely off his mental rocker) but they are as nimble as bands a third of their age. There's a fairly decent selection of tunes here, too, including the expected classics like "Brown Sugar," "Sympathy for the Devil, " "Tumbling Dice," "Paint it Black" and "Undercover of the Night" (the latter two available as bonus tracks on this Blu-ray), plus a few rare gems, including a duet with Christina Aguilera on "Live with Me" and Jack White (of the White Strips) dueting with Mick on "Loving Cup."
Is 'Shine a Light' a terrible rockumentary? Not really. But it's hard to really embrace such a conventional look at such a controversial band. Perhaps, given the constraints of having to deliver a doc that could play in family-friendly IMAX theaters, Scorsese was resigned to pull back and give a more standard-issue look at the band. Still, even the great concert sequences add to the disappointment, as they only remind us that a straight-ahead, filmed full concert may have been the better bet. 'Shine a Light' falls between multiple stools (retrospective, behind-the-scenes documentary, concert film) and does only one of them well. This is really for true Stones fans only.
'Shine a Light' comes from the 'Madonna: Truth or Dare' visual school of rockumentary-making, i.e., the offstage sequences are largely shot in grainy B&W, while the onstage concert scenes are full-blast color. The result is color on a conceptual level, though the harsh film-like look doesn't always translate into ideal high-def source material.
The master looks as good as you would expect given the mix 'n' match of film-based sources (both 16mm and 35mm, plus some HD-based material). The color and B&W film sections are usually quite grainy, and intentionally high-contrast. Whites frequently blow out, while the steep black crush makes colors pop (saturation is terrific) but sacrifices fine details. Close-ups predictably fare the best, and some of Martin Scorsese's wide, sweeping shots of the concert scenes come off grandly on a good-sized TV. There are some noticeable artifacts with 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1), most obviously some jaggies and motion artifacts, and slight noise. Certainly, as a presentation of the original stylistic intent, 'Shine a Light' is a fine Blu-ray, but don't expect to be wowed by anything but the concert sequences.
Paramount has not chintzed on the audio for 'Shine a Light,' offering three terrific options (all English): Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround, DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (both 48kHz/24-bit) and uncompressed PCM 2.0 Stereo (2.3mbps). All three are close in quality, but offer some subtle differences that make for an interesting comparison.
The DTS-MA mix sounds loudest out of the box. After level matching, it still had a brighter quality than the TrueHD and PCM that I wasn't quite as keen on. High-end frequencies were a bit too harsh for my taste, and I preferred the naturalism of the TrueHD mix in particular. Low bass is perhaps a smidgen tighter on the PCM though I certainly wouldn't complain about subwoofer activity on the DTS-MA and TrueHD options. The lack of surrounds on the PCM mix is also not really an issue, as even the 5.1 tracks lack much if any rear presence -- the mix is quite front heavy, with even crowd noise minimal.
One issue with all three tracks is balance between concert and non-concert sequences. I was nearly blown out of my chair when the film's first de facto number came on -- the source is simply mixed way higher during the songs, so those with more sensitive ears should have their remote handy. Granted, the real reason to see 'Shine a Light' is to witness the rock spectacle of the Rolling Stones, but the sound mixers could have been a bit more charitable to the ears with the ol' volume knob.
Surprising given the caliber of talent involved, 'Shine a Light' has few supplements. There's no Martin Scorsese commentary, nor, in fact, any true behind-the-scenes material. Instead, we get a short collection of deleted material and a few extra songs. Video is in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video and audio in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). Subtitle options on the deleted scenes are English, French, and Spanish.
'Shine a Light' is a surprisingly conventional documentary on the Rolling Stones, one that for me didn't quite hit most of the marks it aimed for. As a retrospective on the band's history it's too slight to dig in deep, and as a backstage concert film, there is little revelation to be had. Only the blistering concert sequences really deliver. This Blu-ray is a fine presentation of the source, however, with nice video and audio. The supplements are slim, but for Stones fans who just want a big-screen glimpse at their favorite band, 'Shine a Light' barely makes the grade.