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Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts, Billy Wyman, Bobby Keys

Larger than live
Not Rated.

Standard 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 85 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 3/2/1999

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Rolling Stones Live at the Max (1991)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Back in the summer of 1986, I bought a compact disc of a Rolling Stones album. I don’t recall which one - Let It Bleed, I think - but I do remember that the clerk made a comment such as, “Great band - too bad they broke up.” While no official action had actually occurred in that regard, this was the common opinion at the time. Following the spring 1986 release of Dirty Work, tensions between band leaders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became well known publicly, and the group’s fairly to tour clearly showed the tensions; the Stones hadn’t played live since their 1981-82 world tour, and their absence from the stage with this new release - their first for Columbia - seemed particularly noteworthy.

Though the Stones still offered no public declarations, their demise seemed even more likely over the next couple of years. Jagger released his second solo album in the fall of 1987 and actually threatened to tour behind it. This inspired extremely vicious comments from Richards, who said he’d kill Jagger if he did so without the band. Jagger went on a brief tour of Asia and Australia anyway and apparently survived. Although Richards had often stated he never wanted to tour without the Stones, he also went out in the fall of 1988 on the heels of his first official solo album. These sure looked like the actions of some ex-bandmates.

However, all was not lost. Despite all of these behaviors, tensions started to thaw in early 1989. The Stones were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame at that point, and after a terrific speech from Pete Townshend, Jagger and Richards began to warm up to each other again.

On the heels of this rapprochement, the band quickly reunited and tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together. They entered the studio to record Steel Wheels and once again hit the road in the late summer of 1989. Beginning in Philadelphia - the town where they also launched their last tour in 1981 - the Stones spent the last four months of 1989 in America before they played elsewhere during the spring and summer of 1990.

I became a Stones fan back in 1981, though the release of Tattoo You had little to do with it. I’d been a massive Beatles fan for the two years prior to that, and it just felt like the natural step to take. I knew little about the band before I picked up a copy of 1966’s Aftermath in the spring of 1981, but I quickly became very enamored of their work. I badly wanted to attend one of the 1981 shows, but tickets were elusive, so it wasn’t to be.

As such, for quite some time I thought I’d never get to see the Stones live. By the time they finally hit the road in 1989, I remained a fan, but I must admit my passion had cooled. A few years earlier I would have gone nuts to attend a Stones show, but I honestly wasn’t that excited about the Steel Wheels concerts, even though I’d scored a front-row seat to one of the three I attended.

I enjoyed the concerts but felt moderately underwhelmed. At the time, I thought that my less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward the band was responsible for my opinion, but since then I’ve determined that this was only part of the reason. Frankly, the band weren’t at their best. Some tension remained obvious, and they hadn’t quite gelled again. Humpty Dumpty got partially reconstructed, but some pieces remained missing.

Ironically, the Stones didn’t really coalesce until their subsequent tour in 1994, at which time a piece literally was absent. Bassist Bill Wyman became the first - and to date, only - founding member to actually quit the band. (Guitarist Brian Jones was fired in 1969 and died soon after that dismissal; replacement guitarist Mick Taylor left the band of his own accord, but obviously he wasn’t an original member.) Old Stoneface had tired of the grind many years earlier, and he finally decided he’d had enough after the 1989-90 tour; he didn’t even bother to show up to shoot the video for “Highwire”, one of two new tunes included on Flashpoint, the early 1991 album that documented the recent concerts.

The Stones never formally replaced Wyman. Daryl Jones took over the spot for all the band’s subsequent work, but he wasn’t made an official member of the Stones. This seemed somewhat odd at the time, and I wondered if race might have played a part, as the band might have felt a black member of the Stones would be wrong for their image. However, I doubt that was a consideration, and I expect this decision took place more out of respect for Wyman’s place in history. When Taylor joined in 1969, the Stones had only existed for seven years; clearly they’d earned a spot as a great group, but they didn’t have the substantial history behind them that was there by 1994. After more than 30 years together, it might have been unseemly to simply replace such a long-time component like he’s just another guitar string.

Anyway, the pieces all fit together in 1994. In spite of - or perhaps because of - Wyman’s absence, the Stones felt like a real band again. Perhaps it took the Steel Wheels experience to finally exorcise all the demons and the Voodoo Lounge era could mark their renewal as a truly functioning group. All I know is that the 1994 shows - poorly documented on Voodoo Lounge Live - offered a sensational experience that fully brought me back into the fold as a Stones fan. I didn’t expect much from the initial performances - since the tour started here in DC, I attended its first two shows - but I was mightily impressed with what I saw, and that helped get me back on the bandwagon.

Another factor demonstrates that it wasn’t just my relative lack of interest in the Stones circa 1989 that led me to feel somewhat disappointed by those concerts. A few tour artifacts exist, and these display the lack of cohesion that occurred. The band put on a pay-per-view special in December 1989 that came from the tour’s second-to-last performance in Atlantic City. (I attended the actual final concert the following night, even though I had a nasty case of the flu at the time; it almost kept me home, but after I spent $250 for the ticket - an absolute fortune to a then-college student - I think I would have needed to die before I’d let the money go to waste.) Logically, that show - with a roster of guest stars like Eric Clapton and Axel Rose - would have produced a subsequent live video release, but the Stones took a different route instead.

For shows on the European leg of the trek - redubbed the “Urban Jungle Tour” for reasons somewhat unknown - the Stones brought along an IMAX crew to film some of the shows. They’d produced concert films in the past, from 1970’s Gimme Shelter to 1973’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones to 1982’s Let’s Spend the Night Together, so I guess they figured the Nineties version of the band required something bigger than standard 35mm.

As such, the results were edited together for this 85 minute, 16-song approximation entitled The Rolling Stones Live at the MAX. Unfortunately, that abbreviated length meant that quite a few songs remained out in the cold. A typical Stones performance tends to offer between 22 and 25 tunes, so this compilation clearly omitted a slew of tracks.

Did it capture the band adequately otherwise? Yes and no. While the IMAX format seemed appropriate for the enormous scale of a Stones stadium show, a few problems emerged. On the positive side, the 1989/90 tour did offer the Stones’ best stage ever. They always feature cool set-ups, but the urban decay setting of this era was the most effective. It was busy but interestingly so, and it had many effective components to make it an active participant in the evening. It didn’t translate well to film, but when Jagger emerged at the top of the structure to sing “Sympathy for the Devil”, it offered a highlight of the evening.

One problem with MAX came from the fact that the Stones circa 1989-90 simply weren’t all that good. Jagger seemed even more distant than usual. He’s long used a “1000-yard-stare” at live shows. Apparently he was taught by security experts to look off into the distance at nothing in particular while he sang; allegedly this is to avoid eye contact that might encourage psychos in the crowd to believe the two made some personal connection.

s Jagger displayed this normal attitude, but even after I compensate for that, he still seemed more detached than normal. It also didn’t help that in those days, he tended to proclaim the songs rather than croon them. By the long 1997-99 tour, he finally started to actually sing again, but in the Eighties, he preferred to belt them out in a declamatory style. The 1989-90 vocals beat the ridiculously low and rough tone Jagger displayed on the Tattoo You tour, but he still didn’t sound very good.

As with every tour since that time, the Steel Wheels jaunt featured a somewhat overstuffed band. In addition to the five core members of the Stones, we got three back-up singers (Bernard Fowler, Lorelei McBroom and Sophia Jones), two keyboard players (Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford), and five horn players, including long-time Stones sax-man Bobby Keys; he’s most famous for his participation on “Brown Sugar”. The band used accompaniment on many prior tours as well, but never to this degree. The Tattoo You jaunt included Keys and second horn player Ernie Watts as well as two keyboardists, Ian McLagen and Ian Stewart. (The latter actually was a founding member of the band, but he was formally placed on the sidelines due to original manager Andrew Look Oldham’s decree that he looked too loutish and didn’t fit the band’s image; nonetheless, Stewart remained an integral part of the group until his death in 1985.)

Frankly, I prefer the smaller scale of pre-1989 accompaniment, especially due to the extra singers. I can accept the additional horns, as they fit with many tunes such as “Bitch” (which was played on the 1989-90 tour but doesn’t appear on MAX). However, the singers make the Stones seem more like a cabaret act at times. I don’t think they harm the live performances to a significant degree, but they add a little too much gloss to the show and I’d love to see the Stones tour with a smaller crew one of these years.

In any case, MAX featured this extensive repertoire of additional performers, for better or for worse. As a whole, the Stones sounded decent but unexceptional. Nothing about the playing on MAX seemed especially terrific, but little about it fell flat. Granted, we did find perhaps the worst version of “Happy” ever recorded; Keith’s vocal was particularly ragged, and Ron Wood’s guitar solo also seemed very sloppy. Otherwise, the music appeared acceptable but uninspired.

On an IMAX screen, a lot of the faults fall by the wayside due to the sheer spectacular scale of the enterprise. Unfortunately, on a TV screen, we can better detect the problems. Actually, one issue related to MAX in this setting related to the scale. Because the program was shot for the huge screen, this meant we saw lots of very wide shots. Those still displayed good detail in an IMAX setting, but a lot of the elements got lost on a TV. Even a large set can’t approach the IMAX screen, so much of the action simply evaporated as I watched the DVD.

Otherwise, MAX seemed like a well-produced piece. I couldn’t fault it for favoring shots that would look good on an IMAX screen; while these didn’t translate well to a home setting, the filmmakers did what they should have done by going with what would work on the immense projection.

My main complaint related to the massive edits apparent. As I noted, the show lost at least a half a dozen - if not more - tracks, and these badly affected the flow of the show. Concerts are constructed a certain way for a reason, and by the summer of 1990, the Stones had clearly found a setlist that they liked and felt worked. This went out the window for MAX, as it dropped so many songs. As such, the production failed to deliver the cohesion and pacing necessary to make a concert effective.

Overall, The Rolling Stones Live at the MAX had some moments, but it didn’t deliver a particularly effective look at a Stones concert. Partly this occurred due to the loss of image found in the translation from an IMAX screen to a TV set, but even without those concerns, MAX would remain a flawed document. This tour didn’t reflect the band at their best, and the film also failed to maximize their potential.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+ / Audio B / Bonus D-

The Rolling Stones Live at the MAX appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While most IMAX presentations look quite good on DVD, MAX was an exception, as its picture seemed rather erratic.

MAX definitely mixed the good with the bad. Like much of the image, sharpness varied throughout the program. At times, the film seemed nicely crisp and distinct; those occasions usually occurred during medium to close-up shots. When the camera extended farther out than that, however, the picture often became fuzzy and somewhat blocky, as moderate pixelization occurred. Since much of the movie used wider views - due to the IMAX presentation - this meant that we frequently saw such problematic images.

Jagged edges seemed inconsequential for the most part, but moiré effects were a more substantial concern. Quite a lot of shimmering occurred, and I actually saw a distinct rainbow effect in the background during many scenes. Though the picture seemed somewhat gauzy at times, it presented few print flaws. I detected a little grit and a nick or two, but those sorts of defects remained minor.

Colors varied from pretty good to fairly muddy. At best, the hues appeared tight and vibrant and nicely replicated the show’s lighting schemes and the band’s outfits. However, much of the time the colors appeared runny and somewhat messy, without the desired clarity. Lighting seemed a bit heavy at times. Black levels appeared reasonably deep and rich, and shadow detail looked appropriately opaque during the infrequent low-light sequences. Ultimately, enough of MAX seemed clear and distinct enough to merit a “C+”, but this was still an erratic and disappointing image.

The Rolling Stones Live at the MAX was the first laserdisc I ever bought that included a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The DVD replicated this mix, which offered a good but unspectacular rendition of the concert. As we often find for live presentations, much of the audio remained anchored in the forward channels. In the front, we encountered fairly solid stereo imaging. Vocals stayed nicely centered while the instrumentation spread cleanly across the forward speakers. A staple of Stones’ music, the dueling guitars each got their own channel, while the rest of the track blended together neatly.

Surround usage mainly restricted itself to crowd noise and general reinforcement of the music. Only a little distinct information seemed to come from the rears. For example, on occasion we heard the chatter of roadies as they worked on the show, and those elements created a decent auditory environment.

All in all, audio quality was good, though Jagger’s vocals displayed a few concerns. For one, they seemed to be mixed too loudly, as they dominated the proceedings to a moderately excessive degree. In addition, I heard a modest amount of edginess attached to some of Mick’s singing. This wasn’t always present, but it seemed quite noticeable at times, especially during “Satisfaction” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

Otherwise, the vocals sounded acceptably natural and distinct; only the minor distortion marred them. The remainder of the track seemed nicely rich and vivid. Guitars showed appropriate crunch and bite, while drums had a nice pop and kick to them. Highs appeared clear and bright, while bass response came across as pretty deep and rich; low-end wasn’t particularly special, but it complemented the mix fairly well. Overall, MAX featured a generally solid soundtrack, but not one that excelled in any particular way.

Although the trend has started to change with terrific packages like Bruce Springsteen’s Live In New York City and U2’s Elevation, most music DVDs continue to lack supplements. MAX falls into that category, as it includes only one very minor extra. It offers a discography that covers the band’s releases through 1997’s Bridges to Babylon. This rudimentary feature simply lists the album titles and provides no other information, which makes it fairly useless.

Shot for the very big IMAX screen, The Rolling Stones Live at the MAX loses a lot in the translation to your TV. While it offers a decent souvenir of their 1989-90 tour, it remains a fairly lackluster concert and a bland presentation. The DVD provides erratic but generally mediocre picture along with fairly good sound and no significant extras. If you can see this sucker on an IMAX screen, it merits a look, as the coolness of that presentation compensates for some of the performance flaws. Otherwise, MAX should be left for the diehard Stones fans.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars Number of Votes: 23
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