Under His Thumb

Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts at New York's Beacon Theatre in 2006 in a scene from "Shine a Light."
Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts at New York's Beacon Theatre in 2006 in a scene from "Shine a Light." (By Kevin Mazur -- Associated Press)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

We dream of control in modest morsels -- a little cooperation from the spouse here, a homework agreement from the teenage kid there. Maybe full and uncontested rights to the remote around March Madness time. But few of us get to enjoy Mick Jagger's 24-7 command authority in that fusion of personal and public existence he calls his life -- the one that includes the Rolling Stones.

Jagger's super-clout is on fascinating display in "Shine a Light," a vibrant, playful documentary that captures the band's backstage machinations and onstage performances at New York City's Beacon Theatre in 2006. Spiritual leader and consigliere of the group, he fusses over details of the stage set, 17 cameras and three stage runways that will be part of the ambitious show. He expresses concern the audience might be turned off by the show of machinery. And he practically causes "Shine" director Martin Scorsese to tear out his hair when the singer refuses to relinquish the proposed song list until the last minute.

"Can we kinda know, if at all possible, what they're gonna play?" Scorsese demands in "GoodFellas" rapid-speak as the movie crosscuts between him and Jagger, whom we see poring over a legal pad, dividing Stones numbers into three categories -- the very well known, the well known, and the rarely performed. The message is crystal clear: Marty may be directing but Mick's got the remote.

Even Bill Clinton, who bought a block of seats for one of the two shows, hobnobs obsequiously with the band before the show. We can almost see the limelight handover, as the former leader of the free world defers to the likes of Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest.

As the psychodrama unfolds, it's clear Scorsese is aware of the compelling conflict -- two celebrity silverbacks circling each other, amid a snarl of mike stands, camera crews and massive amplifiers. And he understands how a little reality-show ego smack-down sets up the movie beautifully for its primary purpose: a full-on experience with the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world.

Just as he did in "The Last Waltz," his brilliant 1978 documentary about the Band, Scorsese lets the musicians dictate the flow of action. There are 19 songs to be savored here, most in their entirety. Aficionados of the Mick 'n' Keith oeuvre will appreciate the obvious classics such as "Honky Tonk Women" and "Brown Sugar," but also interesting selections from the vault, including "As Tears Go By" and "Connection." (Stones geeks will also note that Jagger excises some of the most incendiary lyrics from two songs -- a reference to the Kennedy family in "Sympathy for the Devil" and observations about black women's sexual appetites in "Some Girls.")

The lure of the Rolling Stones almost defies logic. After more than 40 years of existence, what is it about these well-weathered rockers that keeps them at the forefront of pop? How do they keep strutting strong while youthful sensations flare up and fade out?

The answer is in the music -- a simple equation of chords One, Four and Five -- that revels in the sheer joy of its own paradigm. Their most telling song title? "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)." And it's also in the spectacle of perpetual self-belief -- a renewable tableau of masterful musicians impervious to embarrassment, self-consciousness or awareness of the passing decades. Watch Jagger's adolescent, perpetual motion and bravado, as if he just stepped off the plane in 1962. See the way Richards leans on band-mate Ron Wood's shoulder in mid-strum, so relaxed you'd think he was in his living room.

While performing, they dwell inside a Peter Pan-ish time bubble. And despite the ravages of time on their faces, they make the case for bad-boy immortality. Judging by the ecstatic enthusiasm of their audiences, old and young, the fans get the picture.

There are some musically assured guest appearances, too, from Jack White, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera. These odd couplings attest to the Stones' perennial pull; it's a heady experience to watch Jagger and White performing an enthusiastic, soulful "Loving Cup" -- a song written before White was born.

"Shine a Light" is more than mere concert. Scorsese layers in some terrific vintage footage of the Stones. There's a young, wrinkle-free Mick in the 1960s telling reporters: "We never thought we'd do it for two years even. . . . We're pretty well set for at least another year." There's Richards, famous for a druggie past, explaining his longevity: "My life hasn't run out, I guess."

Whether we're looking at the Stones then or now, it's always clear that Jagger's been at the controls of the band and, by extension, pop culture for close to a half-century. His authority isn't the kind we normally associate with celebrity musicians -- that sort of perpetual sandbox privilege in which he (or she) does whatever the inner child allows, while handlers, press agents and bodyguards trip over one another to take care of the ensuing mess. This is the Jagger, after all, who would have finished his business studies at the London School of Economics if the pop thing hadn't worked out.

And the band knows who's boss. Richards may be the other half of the songwriting brain trust but in the Stones family, he's the eldest kid, at best. ("Hey Clinton, I'm feeling Bushed," he jokes like a mischievous schoolboy to Wood, as the former president hovers in the background.) So long as the mystique continues, fans keep paying Super Bowl prices for Rolling Stones tickets and people still start up their air guitars to the sound of "Satisfaction," the Mick majesty will continue.

Shine a Light (122 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and drug references.

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