Music Article

The Original Rock Stars

The Rolling Stones' ''Shine a Light'' -- Columnist Diablo Cody talks about Martin Scorsese's documentary

The Rolling Stones' ''Shine a Light''

I've been meaning to write about the Rolling Stones, but I am the furthest thing from a hipster rock journalist. Yeah, I do have a few au courant records on my iPod—tracks by Babyshambles and the Raconteurs and other talented anemia patients—but the play count is typically stalled around four. (Meanwhile, "Chiquitita" by ABBA is nearing triple digits.) I love "She Bangs" and Lester Bangs with equal ardor. Most importantly, I am not ashamed to blast the Xanadu soundtrack until my downstairs neighbor begins jabbing the ceiling with an otherwise neglected kayak paddle. The soundtrack to my life is pure fondue: cheesy, gooey, prone to accidental seepage. Venture within 20 yards of my house and you risk exposure to high levels of ELO.

Being as unapologetically lame as I am, I've worried that I'm not qualified to write about a band as seminal, influential, deathproof, and cool as the Rolling Stones. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that Mick and the boys are the most accessible band around. Who else could record a song called ''C---sucker Blues'' and also be my mom's favorite touring act? The Rolling Stones are so versatile, they're like the band version of that Infinite Dress they sell on QVC. (''It's a saucy halter! No, it's an exotic sari! IT'S 100 DRESSES IN ONE!'')

So, I went to see Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese's Stones documentary, a couple of weeks ago. It was presented in IMAX, a format I generally associate with eco-friendly penguin porn. In this case, the only wildlife on display is the four Stones themselves, who look rugged indeed. The grooves on Keith Richards' grinning face are so deep that they'd probably play ''Street Fighting Man'' if you ran a needle across them. Ron Wood is sporting a rockin' MySpace mullet—it's like Panic at the Social Security Office! Charlie Watts, silver-haired and eternally bemused, is still the straight man at the rock & roll circus. And Mick Jagger, oddly, still resembles his most enduring selves: the sneering '60s punk, the lean disco prowler, the turbocharged '80s bobblehead. His lips are as pillow-lush as they were in the Between the Buttons era. His gaze is still sleepy and carnal, his body impossibly slim. I have no idea how he avoided the onset of grandpa gut; I imagine him subsisting on a foppish diet of black coffee, Château Lafite Rothschild, and the occasional tea sandwich.

Shine a Light, it seems, is the ''nice'' live-Stones doc, twinned by the decidedly darker Gimme Shelter. The latter, shot in 1969, is notorious for its chilling footage of 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter being stabbed by an overzealous Hells Angel. Aside from that unforgettable sequence, the ghoulish intensity of the Stones' performance is what most viewers remember. As a band, they were at their most (figuratively) dangerous, an unwitting mirror of the literal violence in the pit. These days, the Rolling Stones still have an edge, but that fangs-out ferocity has mellowed considerably. They've seen it all, survived it all, emerged with knowing smirks. And curiously, they seem to be even better musicians now that the counterculture theatrics have fallen away.

Scorsese's film is pretty awesome. The camera work is unsurprisingly dynamic, and Jagger can still out-undulate rockers half—nay, one-third his age. Appearances by Jack White and Christina Aguilera felt a little gimmicky, but both guest stars brought the thunder. (Besides, it was fun seeing Mick and Xtina in a vocal sparring match.) Keith has never looked happier, and the fascinating love/hate relationship between him and Ronnie Wood is wisely addressed in one of the film's too-brief interview segments. Charlie, God bless him, still punishes those drums with no-nonsense flair. Overall, it was a great show, an outstanding show, and I wasn't even there. (Well done, Martin Scorsese. You've got a future in this business, kid!)

As I watched the film in that insane eye-popping aspect ratio, something occurred to me: I might be wrong, but I think the Rolling Stones invented the rock star. Now obviously, the Stones didn't invent rock music; they were just another skilled gang of white R&B scavengers. I'm talking aesthetics, attitude. The entire concept of rock-god-as-glorious-mess seems to have originated with Keith Richards, and Mick was the model for what is now a familiar archetype: the preening, pouting frontman. How many young punks are still aping that shtick 30 or 40 years later? Some rockers owe an obvious stylistic debt to the Stones (Steven Tyler, the Hives, etc.). Some are a little less obvious (Amy Winehouse's shambolic persona and smeared eyeliner are pure Keith). Whether it's a blatant homage or unconscious mimicry, the Rolling Stones have permanently, indelibly influenced how rock stars look and behave. That warrants a spotlight.

Originally posted May 14, 2008 Published in issue #991 May 16, 2008 Order article reprints