A 70-foot-tall Mick Jagger may seem a grotesquerie beyond even David Lynch, but the presence of Ol' Crow's Feet and the rest of the Rolling Stones in the film At the Max, now playing at the Museum of Science and Industry's five-story-high Omnimax Theater, does inspire a certain I-should-know-better-than-to-look curiosity, as a gruesome car crash along the highway might, or straight talk about the deficit.
At the Max is billed as a film of the last few dates on the Rolling Stones' 1990 Urban Jungle tour of Europe, but that's sort of dishonest. Directed by English filmmaker Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners, Earth Girls Are Easy), At the Max is the first feature film to use a format that provides images ten times larger than standard 35-millimeter films. (The technology's developers call it IMAX. "Eye-max." Get it?) As in the IMAX nature movies that preceded it, the subjects in At the Max are there as much to showcase the format's staggering visual and audio effects as to benefit from them. As far as this medium is concerned, the only differences between aging rock stars and beavers, volcanoes, and the Grand Canyon are their size, their age, and the discretionary income of the crowds they draw.
A concave dome 76 feet in diameter, the screen of the Omnimax Theater wraps itself around the audience, extending almost to the limits of one's peripheral vision. The seats rise at about a 60-degree angle, so sitting in the theater in front of the blank screen can induce a disconcerting vertigo. It's worth mentioning, too, that those seats, apparently designed for an age group that prefers beavers and volcanoes to aging rock stars, are a bit cramped. The payoff for these discomforts is the astonishing clarity amd immediacy of the film's images. The Stones and their ten-piece backing band don't seem to be giants towering above us; rather we seem to be on the stage itself, standing next to various band members throughout the film (it probably helped that I sat high in the auditorium's tiers). The size and remarkably fine resolution of the projection magnify details--the pads of Bobby Keys's saxophone as he solos on "Brown Sugar," the sequins on Jagger's coats, the crags and creases on everybody's faces--to a degree usually available only on close inspection; at the same time the entire image is in view. The effect can be overwhelming. When the rotund Keys totters onstage during "Sad Sad Sad," for example, he appears ridiculously ursine. At times, too, there's no clear focus for our attention and the mass of visual information becomes disorienting. By and large, though, the sensation of being alongside the musicians is entrancing.
That immediacy is heightened by the audio component in At the Max--if anything, it surpasses the film's visuals. In terms of pure recording quality, the film's 15 songs sound better than any live performance or studio recording I've heard. (Of course, my stereo at home doesn't have a 20,000-watt sound system that arranges 72 speakers into 12 clusters.) With the help of longtime Stones engineer Chris Kimsey, the Stones' songs take on a remarkable clarity of detail and purity of sound. The mix captures the Stones as a band, distinguishing the importance of each element--Bill Wyman's chugging bass, Charlie Watts's crisp drumming, Jagger's forceful vocals, the embellishments of the supporting musicians--in creating the group's sound. The film is especially good at presenting the guitar interplay at the band's heart, revealing the contributions of Ron Wood. After all, take away Keith Richards's ferocious riffing, and what have you got? Former guitarist Mick Taylor answered this question by laying down blazing leads alongside Richards's rhythm work, but Wood's playing has never been as distinctive. In At the Max, Wood is a valuable supporting musician, intertwining his guitar with Richards's on "Rock and a Hard Place," trading gospel-blues licks on "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and providing stinging slide guitar leads on "Happy."
Alas, the performances themselves are more dutiful than inspired. "Tumbling Dice" is tepid until the expanded band digs into the song's extended coda, and "Satisfaction," the film's finale, is a thudding yawn until Richards's solo launches the song into its drawn-out conclusion. Only "Paint It Black" breaks any new ground musically. Featuring Richards's rippling, classically styled acoustic-guitar introduction, the song snaps forward into a weird, gripping, and forceful mutation of blues boogie, Moroccan dirge, and guitar-twanging surf music. The rest of the time, the band's renditions are as solid, well arranged, and smooth-running as a Swiss automobile. Given that the Stones haven't always been the tightest of bands--hell, they were giving sloppy live performances when the Replacements were in nursery school--this precision is mostly to their good, but the music is missing the fire, the burning intensity, it once possessed. The band has traded passion for competence, in the same way that many in their baby-boomer audience have traded sports cars for the safety and reliability of the Volvo.
To a large extent, At the Max succeeds simply because the Stones--colorful, funny-looking, prone to making curious movements and odd noises--are natural subjects for the wonder-instilling effects of IMAX treatment. And a medium of that magnitude may be the perfect match for the band's carefully erected persona. For a long time the Stones have been as much spectacle as band, their appeal resting as much on their personal notoriety as on their music. Both the Stones and IMAX tend toward sweeping, extravagant productions; the symbiotic relationship between band and format is most apparent in the massive "industrial wasteland" set, modeled after the landscape in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The Stones didn't use the set on the European leg of their tour, but the filmmakers wanted it for At the Max so they brought it out of mothballs for the five performances that provide the footage.
Just as the IMAX format calls attention to itself, Temple's direction at times focuses as much on the film's elaborate mechanics as on the performances. The film begins and ends with a sound audiences never hear--the electronic buzz and squawk of crew members giving and receiving instructions. Later At the Max shows roadies' efforts to control the enormous inflatable dolls used during "Honky Tonk Women" and "Street Fighting Man." During "2,000 Light Years From Home" Temple fills the band's wide-screen video monitors in excruciating close-up, focusing not on the performance but on the medium that delivers it to the crowds in the back row. In the movie's most self-conscious moment, Temple shoots Jagger from behind, standing in front of a knee-high teleprompter on which appear the words "'Ruby Tuesday' / IMAX / Yellow Coat / Stage Center" (the camera crews can also often be glimpsed in the shadows or off to one side of the action). Yet in some ways this approach may be the most honest. After all, it's not as if the Stones were a bar band who just got up onstage and knocked out a couple dozen songs for their own enjoyment. Temple's direction makes it clear that this is not only rock and roll, it's an elaborate production carefully planned and controlled.
Despite this viewpoint, or perhaps because of it, the charming aspect of At the Max is that it captures the Stones' genuine enthusiasm for performing, the enjoyment they seem to take in playing live music, despite having played most of the featured songs countless times on countless tours. Oh, Bill Wyman seems miserable, of course. Charlie Watts, on the other hand, is almost childlike in the film's opening moment, shuffling his feet in a dance of nervous anticipation before the band takes the stage, and Ron Wood bounces around at times like a hyperactive schoolkid. The real indications of the band members' pleasure, though, are the subtle details the IMAX format captures, especially the quiet smiles of satisfaction that keep showing up on Wood, Watts, and Keith Richards. The shot of Richards standing by Watts's drum riser at one point, facing the drummer and singing along, unmiked, with the music, is a strikingly intimate portrait of the bond at the heart of the band.
As for Jagger--well, he does flash a quick smile of genuine enjoyment, tipping his hand in acknowledgement, as Richards completes the opening riff of "Honky Tonk Women." He also seems to put some genuine feeling into "Sad Sad Sad" and "Rock and a Hard Place," which may explain the two new songs' inclusion at the expense of more venerable material. (On the other hand, the band may be trying to wring some interest out of the lamentable Steel Wheels.) Otherwise Jagger sings well, with tough insistence, but without any evidence of personal conviction or emotional connection to the music. Like his singing, the rest of Jagger's performance has a look of studied concentration. A man who relies on a teleprompter is not likely to view performing live as fun. He is likely to view it as a job--and it must be said that Jagger does his job very, very well, displaying an athlete's stamina and lean, sinewy torso as he sings and dances and clambers across the enormous stage.
Give Mick Jagger his due. Watching him vault a flight of steps with seeming effortlessness during "Honky Tonk Women," I thought of how winded the climb into the Omnimax Theater's upper reaches had left me, and I'm almost 20 years younger. The man works hard--singing, dancing, working the crowd--and he keeps it up for hours (At the Max's 89-minute running time is significantly shorter than the Stones' performances were in '90 and '91). In some ways Jagger reminds me of Dick Clark. He shares with rock and roll's Dorian Gray not only a genuine love of classic 50s rhythm and blues but a shrewd understanding of music as a lucrative form of entertainment. Their relationship with rock and roll is more professional than artistic, a means of making a very good buck. That attitude may strike purists and romantics, and to some extent I'm both, as lamentable, but I'm also practical enough to respect these men's professionalism and high standards (yes, Clark's television programs are schlock, but they're well-made schlock). It requires sacrifice and dedication to undertake a job as demanding as Jagger's and perform it at the level he does. There's something admirable in that degree of commitment, and maybe a kind of artistry, too.
"It's only rock and roll," Jagger reminded us nearly 20 years ago, "but I like it." That assessment was correct, of course, but at the same time the man who made it knew better. Was "Sympathy for the Devil" only rock and roll? Was "Gimme Shelter?" With few exceptions (Some Girls, parts of Undercover, "One Hit to the Body"), the Rolling Stones haven't made music of any significance in almost 20 years. These days, Ice-T matters--I think he's our Elvis, mixing white (metal) and black (rap) music idioms, appearing in movies, challenging cultural norms with willful acts of provocation--and I'm not sure who else does. But the Stones did matter at one time, and their best work is still important. Their music, and the force of the band itself, the very terms of its existence, issued challenges to the culture, made demands and insisted on capitulation, suggested alternative ways of understanding and acting. Only a few performers (Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols) have mattered as much. As rock 'n' roll, At the Max is entertainment of high quality and impressive technical achievement. The problem is that it's only entertainment, and nothing more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin.