SHINE A LIGHT ssDirected by Martin Scorsese
MOVIN' ON UP: THE MUSIC AND MESSAGE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD AND THE IMPRESSIONS, 1965-1973 ssDirected by David Peck, Phillip Galloway, and Tom Gulotta
This weekend brings the local premieres of two music documentaries, each running a full two hours. Both celebrate musicians who did their most significant work in the late 60s and early 70s, and both are packed with performance footage. But the similarities end there: Shine a Light, which screens at the Navy Pier IMAX theater on an 80-foot screen, is Martin Scorsese's masterfully orchestrated concert movie of the Rolling Stones performing in 2006 at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, shot by a team of acclaimed cinematographers. Movin' On Up, projected from DVD on Friday and Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center, is an awkward talking-head documentary surrounding 19 complete performances by Chicago soul great Curtis Mayfield and his group the Impressions. The Scorsese movie easily trumps Movin' On Up as a cinematic experience, but hearing the elderly Stones pick through their back catalog isn't nearly as gratifying as all the rare footage of Mayfield at the full flower of his passion and social protest.
For a certain white-male demographic, Shine a Light is a match made in heaven—who better to toughen up the Stones than Scorsese, who's used their songs in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed? For this project he wisely talked the band into staging an intimate, New York-themed show instead of the gigantic open-air concert in Rio de Janeiro that Mick Jagger wanted him to film. Scorsese knows how to shoot and edit live music—he worked on Woodstock (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972) and turned the Band's farewell show into the elegiac The Last Waltz (1978), still a marker in the concert-doc genre. Shine a Light bills him as a costar, and in the production sequence before the concert he does his usual hyperactive shtick, comically fretting as he waits for Jagger to issue a last-minute set list. But he's even more of a presence once he disappears behind the cameras, skillfully coordinating an all-star crew that includes Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), Robert Richardson (The Aviator), and Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood).
Their attention to details of personality and musicianship allow Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi to create a strong sense of onstage space. The Stones are tight as usual, playing with vigor and an easy rapport developed over decades. But anyone looking for a human drama on the level of The Last Waltz will be disappointed: for the Stones this is just one more concert and, for that matter, one more film in a collection of dozens, including work by Robert Frank (Cocksucker Blues), Jean-Luc Godard (One Plus One), and Hal Ashby (Let's Spend the Night Together). The best, Gimme Shelter (1970), centers on the Hell's Angels' stabbing of a black audience member at the Altamont Speedway concert in 1969; in Shine a Light the band gathers onstage after the sound check for a meet-and-greet with Bill Clinton and members of his foundation, which benefited from the two shows filmed. Who'd have thought Ronnie Wood would get on so well with Hillary's mom?
A good editor might have done wonders with Movin' On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, 1965-1973, a DVD release from the San Diego music-footage library Reelin' in the Years. Directors David Peck, Phillip Galloway, and Tom Gulotta collect some fascinating personal details about the singer from his widow, Altheida Mayfield; his fellow Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden; and producer Johnny Pate, who arranged and recorded some of Mayfield's greatest singles. (Cash, Gooden, Altheida Mayfield, and Jerry Butler, who left the Impressions in 1958, will attend this Friday's screening.) Carlos Santana holds forth on the spiritual power of Mayfield's 60s anthems, former Martin Luther King aide Andrew Young remembers how they inspired the civil rights movement, and Chuck D testifies to the continuing resonance of Mayfield's urban protest songs from the early 70s. Unfortunately the talking-head sequences move like molasses and grow more dutiful as the video progresses, serving only to set up the performances.
Despite these flaws, Movin' On Up blows away the Stones movie as a musical experience. Curtis Mayfield was a gigantic talent: a singular vocalist, an inspired songwriter, and a lyricist of power and conscience. His songs with the Impressions sometimes dwelled on harsh truths, yet their infectious, gospel-flavored choruses were blasts of hope and connection. Peck and company have compiled a treasure trove of performances, lovingly included in their entirety. Viewing them chronologically, you can sense how each hit single captured the times, as the exuberant "People Get Ready" (1965) and "We're a Winner" (1968) give way to more sober assessments like "This Is My Country" (1968), "Choice of Colors" (1969), and Mayfield's solo debut, the funky "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go" (1970). Perhaps more than any other soul artist, Mayfield consciously set out to articulate the full range of the black experience, which may be why his music seems so much more meaningful now than the Stones' white-millionaire blues.
Mayfield's songs may sound benign now, but in their day their social commentary caused as much static as the Rolling Stones' naughty come-ons. In Movin' On Up, Cash and Gooden recall a session for "We're a Winner" at which Pate prevailed upon a laughing Mayfield to cut the lyric "There will be no more Uncle Tom / Alas his blessed day has come / And we're a winner." Nonetheless, WLS radio refused to play the record, citing as "militant" the line "Keep on pushing / Like your leaders tell you to." A spectacular clip shows the Impressions performing the song live for a black audience on the Boston TV program Say Brother and capping it off with a sing-along of their 1965 hit "Amen." A year later a producer at The Joey Bishop Show forbade them to sing their hit "Choice of Colors" until Bishop himself stepped in on their behalf. That live performance is another classic, the Impressions trading lead vocals as they sing, "How long have you hated your white teacher? / Who told you you love your black preacher? / Can you respect your brother's woman friend / And share with black folks not of kin?" Forty years later, none of those questions seems to have lost its edge.
The Stones have been around so long now that we might forget how odd it would have been in the mid-60s to hear Mick Jagger, a nice English boy and student at the London School of Economics, trying to sing like an old black man. The band has always been defined by its passion for American blues and soul, but Jagger and Richards's lyrics are about alienation, not community. By the time the Impressions were trying to put across the morally challenging "We're a Winner" and "Choice of Colors," the Stones had ended a brief, halfhearted experiment with flower power and crossed over to the dark side with "Sympathy for the Devil," which gets a long, respectful workout near the end of Shine a Light. Nowadays the most censurable element of the Stones' songs may be their lascivious attitude toward black women: performing the 1978 "Some Girls" in the movie, Jagger drops the notorious lines "Black girls just want to get fucked all night / I just don't have that much jam."
Naturally, age and infirmity are a major subtext of Shine a Light (and, really, any movie featuring Keith Richards). No matter how cadaverous the Stones appear, they keep climbing onstage, and I'll miss them when they're finally gone. But even in that respect Curtis Mayfield set a more impressive example. In August 1990 a lighting rig fell on him as he was performing an outdoor concert in Brooklyn and left him paralyzed from the neck down. Six years later he came back with a final album, New World Order, which he sang lying on his back, one line at a time. "Welfare takes the tab and Daddy can't sign," he laments in the title song. "And can't be seen, the family becomes a crime / The hunt is on and brother you're the prey / Serving time in jail, it just ain't the way." His chorus hijacks a George H.W. Bush slogan, demanding "a new world order... a change of mind for the human race."v
For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.
ratings ssss Excellentsss Goodss Averages Poor Worthless