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30 mars 2008

The sounds of Scorsese

As the veteran film-maker releases his concert movie on the Rolling Stones, Nick Coleman applauds a director who's always put music at the heart of the action

Martin Scorsese
has made a concert film of the Rolling Stones. Shine a Light is a record of a single live date in 2006, a benefit for the Clinton Foundation. By all accounts it's a straightforward, linear affair, achieved in high style and with palpable affection.

You can see why Mick Jagger might fancy such a thing. Cinema has not over-dignified the Stones over the years and the group themselves have made no suitable celluloid gift to posterity. Who better, then, to make them look the way they'd want to look in their dotage than the original Rockin' Movie Brat?

It's harder to see why Scorsese might fancy such a project. His artistic legacy is so secure that he no more needs to make an edifice out of the Rolling Stones than he needs to direct an episode of Basil Brush. But it only takes a look at the Scorsese canon to see that Shine a Light was almost inevitable. From the very start it was obvious Scorsese was going to do something like this. He's even done something like it before. In 1976 he recorded the valedictory performance by The Band at Winterland, San Francisco. The Last Waltz is as lapidary and monumental as rock concert films get.

Scorsese has always loved music immoderately. Certainly, no single film director of his clout has made such essentially musical films. Even with the sound turned down, the best Scorsese films shout and shimmy and reach, as if in reflex, for the transcending arc of aria. They are music in film form.

Here's the great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael on Mean Streets (1973): "The music is the electricity in the air of this movie; the music is like an engine that the characters move to. Johnny Boy, the most susceptible, half dances through the movie... He enjoys being out of control - he revels in it - and we can feel the music turning him on."

We should not expect Scorsese's films to be any other way. He is, after all, the kingpin of the "movie brat" generation that emerged snapping their fingers from the film schools of the Sixties, as much in thrall to hipsterism and its soundtrack as they were to the European New Wave cinema and Forties American films noir.

For Scorsese in particular, the music in a film is not ancilliary to what he has to say, it is, in part, what he has to say. And to say it properly he requires his music to do its work internally, within the world of his cinematic stories. As often as not in Scorsese films, the music emanates from the drama, like a smell. Here's Kael again, on the music in Mean Streets: "[It] doesn't use music, as Easy Rider sometimes did, to do the movie's work for it ... The music here isn't our music, meant to put us in the mood of the movie, but the characters' music."



For his solemn treatment of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel about the spiritual racking of Jesus, Scorsese elected to commission an original score by Peter Gabriel. "The brief," says Gabriel, "was to create a landscape that was part ancient, part contemporary, part familiar, part unknown, and very soulful. We both wanted to break away from the traditional choral and orchestral music connected with the Passion story, to create a new canvas. I was concerned whether Marty would respond to the idea of the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, bringing his majestic Sufi singing to the Christian story, but he loved the idea." Whether or not the film works as a film, the music certainly works as music. (...)

By Nick Coleman
Thursday March 27 2008

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