Once upon a time, Mick Jagger was considered a dangerous man. For proof, check out the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, where brothers Albert and David Maysles captured the notorious Altamont concert, including the murder of a spectator by a security guard. In her review of the movie, Pauline Kael suggested that violence at a Stones concert was no coincidence: “Mick Jagger’s performing style is a form of aggression not just against the straight world but against his own young audience,” she wrote. When Jagger begged the unruly audience to cool it and they didn’t, this was no surprise, “because his orgiastic kind of music has only one way to go — higher, until everyone is knocked out.”
Maybe Kael was being a fuddy-duddy, but watching Gimme Shelter, it’s hard to believe Stones concerts would eventually become events where soccer moms felt safe bringing their kids, let alone spectacles where presidential candidates proudly appear with their whole families in tow. But that’s what we see in Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about two Stones concerts that took place at New York’s Beacon Theater in fall 2006. After the band has exchanged hugs with Bill and Hillary Clinton — and the latter’s mom — they take the stage for an intense, intimate performance.
But unlike Altamont, a free concert where things quickly got out of control, these shows were planned down to the last detail. A 2006 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece describes how Scorsese chose the venue — smaller than usual for the Stones, these days — and instructed his assistants to fill the front rows with fans who also happened to be youngish “babes.”
The result may not be your typical 21st-century Stones concert. But Scorsese makes it a kinetic affair that’s exciting and sometimes beautiful to watch. Cameras positioned all over the theater catch moments big and small, from Jagger hip-swinging down the catwalk to Keith Richards spitting out a lit cigarette to Charlie Watts grimacing uncomfortably as the room thunders with applause. Skilled lighting and cinematography play up that whole Dionysian-orgy thing Kael was talking about: When Jagger sings “Sympathy for the Devil,” the nimbus around his head makes you wonder if he’s a demon or a god. With quick, disorienting edits, Scorsese reproduces the dizzying feeling of being at a show, while showing us things we could never see from pricey assigned seats.
In case there was any doubt, the movie shows the sixtysomething Stones can still rock — they have no problem keeping up with Jack White and Christina Aguilera, both of whom sing duets with Jagger. But ?. . . where’s the aggression? Some time between Altamont and Richards’ cameo in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, ’60s rebellion went corporate. Scorsese reminds us how different things used to be by intercutting the concert with footage from interviews with the younger Stones. The old clips show us that, back in the day, the establishment — including the prim, posh-accented press corps — wasn’t sure how to approach the band. In one hilarious intro to a British news program, we see Jagger enlisted to represent Youth in a staged debate about religion and the counterculture, featuring a bunch of stuffed shirts and a Jesuit priest. Though the singer continually tells reporters he doesn’t mean to scandalize or offend, his cocky, sensual demeanor suggests otherwise.
Jagger can still prance around like nobody’s business, but that hint of erotic menace is gone. Still, Scorsese’s film gives us a window into how the Stones’ generation — which is also the director’s — changed and continues to change our culture. In a 1972 clip used in the movie, Dick Cavett asks Jagger whether he can imagine himself still performing with this intensity when he’s 60. “Sure,” the rock star replies, grinning at the camera. Back then, it’s a safe bet no one took him seriously.