What's up with you and music? You've made documentaries on the blues, the Band, Bob Dylan and soon Bob Marley. Now you've caught the Rolling Stones onstage in Shine a Light. Isn't singing in the shower enough for you?
No, I don't think so [laughs]. I wish I could create music, but I can't. What I can do is put images and music together.
What's the first memory you have of hearing the Rolling Stones?
It was 1965. I was driving on the Long Island Expressway in a Volkswagen, and suddenly out of this mono speaker came the opening guitar licks of Keith Richards and "Satisfaction." And the impression of Mick Jagger's voice, then the lyrics and the driving, relentless nature of the song. It's like a motor. I had to go back and find their other music.
What about the Stones stuck with you?
I hadn't yet seen them live, so it had to do with the energy of the music, the guitars, the percussion. From "The Spider and the Fly" all the way up to the album Let It Bleed, each song is like a narrative, and the band together is like a single character in these narratives. Jagger's voice sounds like a musical instrument. In my head, I'd imagine camera moves or editing patterns, and it freed my mind creatively. A lot of that relentless energy went into Mean Streets, into Taxi Driver. The Stones made the music I listened to.
Who had the idea for the movie?
Jagger was talking about doing a film of the show, A Bigger Bang. It would be an event – over a million people and fifty cameras, on the beach in Rio – so I was thinking about doing it in IMAX 3-D.
So how did it go from Rio to squeezing into Manhattan's Beacon Theatre?
I found I do better in smaller venues, where you can really see them perform.
But there's so little history in the movie, as opposed to No Direction Home and The Last Waltz.
The Stones are the most documented band in history – what more do we need to know about them? I had to keep telling everybody, "The history of the Rolling Stones is right there onstage in their faces, in the way Mick is moving and the way Keith is handling that guitar and the way Charlie Watts plays the drums and the way Ronnie Wood is working. So why don't we see how they work with each other onstage? Maybe we get caught up in that very primal euphoria."
The Beacon is a small stage, but you have cameras swooping all over it.
Yeah, yeah, that was the key. I added the extra element of chance by having the cameras move, constantly tracking and zooming in at the same time. In rehearsals, we made sure that the Stones wouldn't run into a dolly or a camera crane and get hurt. The rehearsals were really about placement, not the music – that's why the joke with Mick comes in, about what music they're going to play.
You and Jagger seem to bang heads over his refusal to tell you the set list.
Yeah, until he felt the audience, he wouldn't decide. It's like being a handicapper, the guy who doesn't bet but who takes the temperature of the race, like, "Is the jockey having a bad day?" Jagger does that. He feels the vibe. So the opening song is changed at the last minute. My problem is that when I'm shooting a picture, I like to complain – I complain constantly – but from Taxi Driver on, I've learned to see the humor in things.
How did the other Stones react?
I tried to say certain things. I don't know if they understood them. Keith said, "I'll do anything you want," but he did what he wanted. He'd get caught up with it. So I said, "Keith, if you want to go to the front of the stage and hang over the edge, fine, we'll find you." You don't tell the Rolling Stones how to move.
That brings up the audience. And it's not just any audience, you've got the Clintons, and we see Hillary introducing her mother to the Stones.
I know [laughs]. That was interesting, because a lot of the audience was from the Clinton Foundation, so that has a certain nature to it. The second night, it was different: The Clintons weren't there. I was outside shooting Stones fans, who waited for days to get tickets.
How many shows did you shoot?
Is what we're seeing in the movie mostly from the second performance?
It's all second performance. Instead of "Start Me Up," they opened the show I on the second night with "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Then the show went up from there. It just moved like lightning, and we happened to capture it.
Does the fact that the concert was a benefit explain the cuts in some lyrics? No one asks, "Who killed the Kennedys?" in "Sympathy for the Devil," and in "Some Girls," Jagger never sings, "Black girls just wanna get fucked all night/I just don't have that much jam."
That was the band's decision, that's the way they played it, and I didn't mention anything about it. We did have the four-letter word that starts with an "f."
How many "fucks" were you allowed for the rating?
We're allowed two. Buddy Motherfucking Guy had the "Motherfucking" taken out. We tried to plead the case that it's part of what he's called. We didn't win that one, so we put a drumbeat in there.
How does age factor in? The Stones are all in their sixties.
If it is a factor, it's that the Stones wear their age more elegantly. You can see it at the end, particularly in "Satisfaction." You can see it on Mick's face and Keith just hanging onto his guitar, trying to catch his breath. They give their all and make you think about the nature of rock & roll forty years into its history.
I heard you were the one who pushed Keith to do "You Got the Silver."
Absolutely. And he doesn't even play an instrument, it's Ronnie on guitar. I thought it was very moving, like a poem. Imagine going back in time and being the shaman and getting up and telling a story, through sounds. And the sounds are music, probably our first form of communication, before language and before drawing pictures. There's something very primal in the way he performs it.
Keith didn't resist losing the guitar?
Not that I know of. He may have, but I couldn't tell [laughs]. I probably didn't know what the hell he was saying.
In the film, you use interviews with the Stones – not interviews you've conducted, but old ones. Why?
Just to give an impression of their history. All the hubbub, all the circus and the living and the dying that goes on in a life, ultimately all that fades away. So many wonderful films have been made about the Stones, going from the key one – Godard's One Plus One, about the actual composition of "Sympathy for the Devil" – to the Maysles' Gimme Shelter, where the music is almost secondary to the tragedy at Altamont. There is rebellion in Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues and a lot of joy in Hal Ashby's Let's Spend the flight Together. And I want to wipe it all away in Shine a Light, until all that's left is what started it: the music.
So what is it that has made the Stones last longer than any other rock band?
The playing of the music itself and the response of the audience is what keeps them going. There's a life force in them, and it's defiant and very beautiful.
This story is from the April 17, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.