Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Recently two consistently interesting directors released films of vintage rock acts in performance. Julian Schnabel's Lou Reed's Berlin (2008) showcases a couple nights in December 2006 when Lou Reed performed the entirety of his 1973 album Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Martin Scorsese gives us Shine a Light (2008), a film of The Rolling Stones in concert at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan during their “a Bigger Bang” tour of 2006. Both films eschew rather viscerally the idiocy of the typical MTV format of lip-synched enactments of pre-recorded songs. If one needs to look at something while listening to music performed, nothing quite substitutes for seeing the musicians interacting with each other, the music, and the audience. Schnabel’s film does feature some visuals that are attempts to dramatize the narrative of Berlin’s song cycle, but they don’t add much to either a sense of what the songs are about nor do they really interest as visuals. For some reason, the idea that randomly conceived images can “accompany” the fluid narrative of song lyrics gained relentless currency in the MTV idiom, and it might be a worthwhile approach if so much of the visuals weren’t pretty much interchangeable and mostly unmemorable, if not unbearable.

Which is why these two films of performance are so striking. Certainly there has been plenty of lackluster taping of musicians playing and, here and there, some notable attainments of artistry -- two of the latter that spring to mind both involved Scorsese: he worked as a cameraman on Mike Wadleigh’s film of the original Woodstock concert in August 1969, and his film of The Band’s farewell concert in New York on Thanksgiving, 1977, has long been a nice bookend to the “woodstock era.” Those two concert films have few rivals in giving the viewer a sense of both epic grandeur and intimate participation. Epic because the crowd and the sound is large as life; intimate because Scorsese is a master at mixing his shots and lighting his subjects and getting moments that reveal, not the mask of celebrity we see in almost every MTV video, but the fascinating temporal fact of performance: once the song starts all the performers are committed to playing it till its over. It’s fun to watch them caught in the song, as it were.

That Scorsese delivers again with The Stones on film surprised me, to a certain extent. Granted, I remember the days when The Rolling Stones truly were “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world,” but if asked about them these days I would probably just shrug and mumble something about their longevity, while noting that I haven’t purchased a release of new material by Mick and the boys since Steel Wheels in 1989. It’s easy to see The Stones as a band whose best was long ago. And yet, for all that, I’ve never written them off as some kind of nostalgia act, but would be hard-pressed to determine if there’s an attraction to their act beyond simple name-brand recognition. Do the people at their shows get what they paid for, or not?

Watching Scorsese’s film, we all do. The film looks great and The Stones have reached a point, into their 60s, where a certain kind of survivor’s majesty accrues to them. These guys lived the promise of rock’n’roll as the bond between a band of brothers if anyone has, and to watch them get off on each other getting off on the sound they lay down is delightful. Certainly it helps one’s enjoyment if one finds it easy to tap into the mythos of what The Stones were, if one can dredge up times when these songs -- a number of them from their pinnacle album Exile on Main Street (1972) and quite a few from their strongest subsequent album, Some Girls (1978) -- enlivened one’s daily life. But again, it’s not about reliving this music’s attraction so much as it’s a kind of participatory high that comes from seeing rock’n’roll as art and as lifestyle fully vindicated by these living relics, these geezers of rock. The Stones come off as aging guys who like a good time and giving others a good time, which, to be sure, isn’t what their mythos is really all about -- there aren’t too many forays in the film into the darker or more threatening version of what The Stones were about once upon a time (though “Sympathy for the Devil” still seems to make Jagger give his all in his search for the frenzy the song demands), even to the point that certain un-PC “racist” moments in the lyrics of “Some Girls” and “Brown Sugar” were laundered out. Well, what can you expect, Bill and Hillary Clinton were on-hand (Bill introduces the band and chats with them a bit), so this film is also about recognition of institutional status. It’s a monument to a band that is itself monumental of the rock of the ages.

Schnabel’s film of Lou Reed’s brilliant and challenging album is more personal, or deliberately “artsy” if only because Schnabel is a New York artist who claims he found in Berlin a story directly applicable to his own life. He says that for a long period he listened to the album at least once a day. He’s got me beat; even at my most enraptured with the record, I always treated it with gingerly respect. Background music it isn’t. To put it on is to be drawn into its world and it’s a world that I would only inhabit as occasion might dictate. I’ve never felt the album to be depressing or a downer, as many critics seem to (even those who admire it), but I would call it harrowing as it asks you to undertake a kind of imaginative sympathy that few rock songwriters have the guts to demand. Given my note by note familiarity with this record, it was great to hear it played so close to the original, but with a bit more looseness in the musical passages, and to watch and hear as Lou Reed delivers his oddly effective deadpan vocals that achieve so much with minimal inflections. I missed at times Jack Bruce’s bass (on the record) but it was great that Lou brought back Steve Hunter, the guitarist on the album, and has the horns and children’s choir and everything needed to bring it all back home. It’s simply satisfying in some epic “journey’s done” way to sit back and watch Lou inhabit songs like “The Kids” and “The Bed” for your viewing pleasure, part of which derives from watching Lou, around mid-60s at the time, having to relive the music of that earlier Lou Reed c. '73, a few years past the Velvets, with one bona fide “alternative” hit under his belt and a vision of rock that was more literary than most because more ironic and more given to mind-games that could be psychologically demanding than just about anyone else you’d care to name.

There’s an old Stones song which asserts “it’s the singer, not the song,” as if to say, if we’re really into the singer it doesn’t much matter what he or she sings. Put another way: if we’re really into the song, does it matter who sings it? Of course it does. These films are paeans to that fact. Some of these songs will doubtlessly last beyond the lifetimes of these musicians, some of them have already been covered numerous times, but to see them performed by their originators -- with their attenuated, “retirement age” bravura -- makes one feel, if nothing else, younger than that now.

Jenny said when she was just five years oldThere was nothin’ happenin’ at allEvery time she’d put on the radioThere was nothin’ happenin’ at allAnd then one fine morning she put on a New York station,Man, she didn’t believe what she heard at allShe started dancin’ to that fine, fine musicHer life was saved by rock’n’roll.–Lou Reed, “Rock’n’Roll” (1970)

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