It is right that in this city of monuments there is one to film. I went to the most beautiful cinema last night. I had seen it noted on my map in the city guide I have and eventually found it. I was expecting, of course, a new multiplex but what I found was a long-lost treasure: a single-screen movie palace, The Odeon. Martin Scorcese’s new doc, Shine a Light, on the Rolling Stones was playing for two nights. It was a film I had wanted to see, but I would have seen anything once I walked in to buy my ticket.
Staircases wound up on my left and right, with a nicely stocked concession to the left, with alcohol and an espresso machine replacing the popcorn. Above the box office a sign showed where the movie was in its schedule:first part, intermission, and second part, plus a bunch of things I couldn’t understand. The matinee was running as I bought a ticket for the 8:10, and I could here the show, but the sound was fantastic: not too punchy on the bass, which is a problem for new theatres. I was excited.
It got better after I arrived for the show and went up to the first balcony – yes, there are two balconies. The Princess Theatre was beautiful. Statues, beautiful light fixtures, the great chandelier in the lobby which we cleaned every Christmas by hand. But it was a long narrow house. The Castro in San Francisco, where I saw all five hours of von Trier’s Kingdom Part II on my honeymoon – it’s okay, she worked at the Princess and was/is a cinephile – was immense, also with a grand chandelier, and a pipe organ. But they pale compared to the Cinema Teatro Odeon in Florence.
I almost dropped to my knees and prayed to Godard when I saw this place.
It’s not bigger than the Castro, but it’s done like an old opera house. It is a theatre that you see in photos of original movie palaces or in Singing in the Rain. It has sitting booths on the third balcony. It has carved figures lining the balcony’s border. It has another plaster at the back below the projection booth (running dual cinemacchinicas on an automated changeoever, if the control display in the lobby is accurate. Kudos to the projectionist who made up the film – not a splice mark). The seats are wood and comfortable, down up in incredibly tasteful gold fabric. But it has this ceiling. A faux stained glass dome that fades down with the lights.
From what I can gather though, it’s a modern theatre – certainly the projection and sound is. There is nothing like a big house for getting good sound. The new places, with their stadium seating to pack the most people in, wallop you with their sound – 15 000 watts I think was the figure for some of the new theatres the chain I worked for was building. A subwoofer that kicks you in the chest. Loud, but the sound is just a wall. In a big house it bathes you and lets you hear everything without beating you about the ears. I could hear individual claps in the mix last night and I thought they were coming from the audience in the theatre, not the one in the movie. The Paramount in Edmonton, which I also managed for a while, was like that, too, when it was in its heyday, when I saw Aliens. I nearly screamed when the THX logo came up the first time, those long years ago. Magic. Sound is always important in a movie – silence is it’s absence which you notice – and what better way to test it than by a modern concert film with unbelieviable sound.
Scorcese is perfect to do the Rolling Stones film. He likes their music. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of it and blues, which probably made the backstage discussion with the Stones a hell of a lot of fun (read his book on the Blues and realize that the Stones are one of the main reasons that we listen to the Blues now). He made a great concert film with The Band called The Last Waltz, which is fantastic. And he is an awesome filmmaker.
It is a film that rivals, Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film that rocked many a night at the Princess Theatre. Scorcese takes an opposite tack from Demme, using a boatload of uber-tech, including the anathema to all good concert stuff, the moving jib, whose nauseous sweep has doomed all concert footage because it’s deployed by hacks who think that it’s cool. You can see all the mechanics during the show, and it’s one of the amazing things about it: you always know you are watching a concert. And it’s a great document of the Stones, who have been the subjects of two great documentaries in the past: the Maysle’s landmark Gimme Shelter, about the tour that ended with Altamont park; and Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, which I wrote about before (for those who don’t want to look it up, it’s a little scene film the Stones commissioned and own, but don’t let out and you must usually see it on a bootleg, which I did, on a bad copy from a bad copy, which is ideal for such a creation as this). But this is different.
Both the Maysles and the Frank films lack something: joy. What you get in those films is work. And, in Frank’s film, the boredom of being the Rolling Stones (the becoming of which you can see has happened in the interim between the two films). Here, in modern film stock, not grainy 16mm, – 16mm dragged over glass, through nails, and finally coated in grease – you see that joy. In several shots you see Keith close his eyes and ecstasy comes over that most wizened face and it’s beautiful. You can then see why he turned to drugs: they fill the void between those pure moments. It’s must be why blues greats turned to drink and drugs, too (or God). Our reality is harsh in the pale light off of the stage.
They are all old men. Fathers and grandfathers. They have seen much and they show it, except for the always stoic Charlie Watts who keeps it all anchored. All the skin sags, and Mick is now old man thin. Keith has his gargoyle smile. Ron has these forearms held together by veins. Charlie seems the same. But they rock. Mick bounces around and vamps for the whole show, but for a break where Keef gets to croon a few (how I wish he had sung Happy, which is one of my favourites, and which I would have cried from joy at hearing). They do shine for the whole show. Plus you get Jack White and the awesome Buddy Guy, whose voice and it’s big howling bass dwarfs Mick’s, and whose guitar playing rips through Keith’s and Ron’s in feeling and energy (well, he did influence Hendrix for a reason). Christina Aguilera is passable and she does have a great voice but she does that yelping Mariah Cary stuff a little much.
I have resisted going to a Stones concert. Partly because they are huge affairs (unless you are one of the lucky ones who gets to see them in tiny halls) and I don’t like arena rock. The Beacon Theatre helps, I am sure, restrict the Stones, and the rock staging is kept to a minimum. It’s Scorcese, his DP Robert Richardson, and the editor (as well as the great camera guys), who keep it tight and flowing. It never wavers and it never gets too big for too long. You are always up close with the band. You see fingers pressing strings into weathered fretboards. You see everybody interact like a band which has played together this long can do – unconsciously. I never found myself saying, “Geez, I wish they would cut to,,,” It made me sad I haven’t seen them live, but I doubt I would have seen the elation I got to see in the movie.