Ask an inhabitant of Berlin today what's cool, and they might struggle to reply, so various are the options. Watching Ricardo Villalobos play a four-hour set at Watergate, perhaps. Catching the new Neo Rauch show at the Berlin Guggenheim. Or just sitting on the terrace at Spindler & Klatt, watching the sun decline by slow stages over the post-industrial wilds of Kreuzberg. Chances are, those answers wouldn't include catching a live gig, however bijou, by a gaggle of aging rock musicians -- once the Satanic majesties of rock, now its grizzled pensioners. However in this respect, it's worth recalling that Berlin International Film Festival chief Dieter Kosslick is not a Berliner by birth; he is from Pforzheim, in the hinterlands of Baden-Wurttemburg. And he is by inclination a cultural bureaucrat: a former funder and administrator. Bear these two factors in mind, and his choice for this year's opening night selection at Berlin -- Martin Scorsese's documentary "Shine A Light," catching the Rolling Stones in concert, back in October 2006, at New York's Beacon Theatre -- might seem a little less perplexing. It's a sixtysomething non-Berliner's idea of cool.
It's tough to pretend that the Stones matter in 2008. For one thing, they haven't made a crucial album in exactly thirty years. But a visit from Scorsese, fresh off an Oscar for "The Departed," coupled with the lure of having the "world's greatest rock and roll band"(TM) on the red carpet, apparently proved irresistible to Herr Kosslick. Berlin's opening nights are, anyway, hardly littered with triumphs (who can forget the gobsmacking idiocy of "Enemy At The Gate"?). Tickets sold well among older Berliners, and from the wild scenes outside the first press screening (which included one near-fistfight), it seems there's no shortage of journalists from Latvia and Albania desperate for a glimpse of their heroes.
Behind the camera, at least, its pedigree could not be faulted. Scorsese enlisted his editor, the great Thelma Schoonmacher, a veritable who's-who of cinematographers (Ellen Kuras, Robert Elswit, Emmanuel Lubezki, Robert Richardson, Andrew Lesnie and Stewart Dryburgh), and even documentary maestro Albert Maysles -- who's glimpsed in the background as the Stones shake hands with Bill Clinton and entourage before the show. (A moment which neatly sketches their personalities: Ron Wood and Mick Jagger greeting Hilary's mother with polite murmurs, before Keith wanders up, smiling broadly and throws an arm around her shoulders, drawling, "'allo, Dorothy!")
It begins with a series of behind-the-scenes shots, vaguely comic, and mostly of the "it-can't-possibly-come-together-in-time" variety -- Jagger: "Marty wants this set"; Scorsese: "I thought HE wanted it..." -- before moving on to the gig proper. And interspersed among the set list are flashes from the archives of oblivion -- early '60s scenes of young Stones being interviewed, in faded B&W, about their then-nascent career, which only served to remind you how positively archeological they look today.
It's no "Last Waltz," either musically or filmically. For one thing, there's no comparable sense of historical moment, but Scorsese remains adept at capturing the exchanges between musicians: the moment when everyone locks into the riff, the flashes of relief or exhaustion as a song concludes without incident. And if the performances are the ragged side of flat -- sad to say, by the second song, "Shattered", I was checking my watch -- the audience don't seem to mind in the least. There's even a cameo from guest-star Jack White, to drag the show all the way into 1937!
(Perhaps the most startling thing about the concert-footage, though, is how iy contrives to exclude all but the four key Stones. There are other musicians, but they're barely glimpsed; Osama Bin Laden could be playing bass, and you'd never know it.)
But the real show, of course, was at the press conference, where all the assembled guests stayed firmly in character: Scorsese typically voluble, excited by his first visit to Berlin since "Raging Bull" was the Berlinale opening night back in 1981; Mick doing most of the talking, and demonstrating, almost casually, a cinephile's fascination with the medium. "This is," he noted wryly, "actually the only Martin Scorsese movie that DOESN'T have 'Gimme Shelter' in it." Keith looked rakish and relaxed, tossing off the occasional rasping quip. "It's Martin's movie," he drawled softly. "We're just the" -- a soft chuckle -- "leading men." And Ron Wood and Charlie Watts maintained a dignified near-silence throughout.
Still, one wishes that Scorsese and company had turned the full brilliance of their technique on something a little edgier -- say, a modern-day version of "The TAMI Show," perhaps featuring the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Sunn O and Neko Case and Ghostface Killah. But that's another movie, destined to be made by other filmmakers. And shown at another festival, not this one.
[Shane Danielsen is the former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and now lives and writes in Berlin.]
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Berlinale is available in iW's special Berlin section.