So when word came out that he was doing what early press releases called a "career-spanning documentary" about the Rolling Stones, fans of both the Stones and of Scorsese were ready to be blown away.
The good news: It's a solid concert film, shot during the "Bigger Bang" tour at the intimate Beacon Theatre in New York. The band is in top form; Mick Jagger proves once again that he's still one of the best front men in the business; Scorsese hired the best cinematographers he could find, including Oscar winners Robert Elswit and Robert Richardson.
The bad news: There's nothing "career-spanning" about it. If Scorsese just stuck with the glitz and glam and rock 'n' roll of the live performance, he might've had a masterpiece here. But while most of the songs are presented straight through, the flow between them is often lost when he interjects a handful of old interviews.
So is this a historical documentary or a concert film? The slightly depressing answer is both ... and neither.
It starts with grainy black-and-white footage of different Stones and of Scorsese, looking at stage set designs. It cuts to a long distance phone conversation between Scorsese and Jagger on whether cameras will be allowed onstage. There are peeks at rehearsals and of Scorsese fretting over proposed set lists. But all of this feels just a tad fake, as if it's been staged, with hopes that it appears real to viewers.
None of it matters though when the show starts, when Mick and the boys, looking all wrinkly in their close-ups, hit the stage and dive into a hot "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and then into a gritty "Shattered."
Is Jagger's voice just a little shot? Yeah. Has it ever really been all that good in the first place? Not really. But that's OK. He has been and still is one of the best rockers to watch onstage.
And suddenly, between "Shattered" and "She Was Hot," there he is, 40-plus years ago in a B & amp;W interview, casually saying, "I think we're pretty well set up for at least another year." The kicker comes much later when, during a 1972 Dick Cavett interview, he's asked if he can picture doing this at 60, and he says, "Yeah, easily."
But aside from an old Charlie Watts interview in which he says he once thought about becoming a designer, not much is revealed about the band or the members. Brian Jones and Bill Wyman are seen briefly in old footage, but neither is heard nor mentioned. And guitarist Mick Taylor, who had a five-year run with the band, does not exist in the universe of Scorsese's film.
Yet as much as it fails in its half-hearted attempt at Stones history, it succeeds grandly in capturing the excitement of the live shows. Back-up singers join them, a horn section pops up, Jack White trades vocals with Jagger in a great performance of "Loving Cup," Christina Aguilera does a ripping vocal duet with Jagger on "Live With Me."
Medium and close-up camera shots regularly remind us that Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood are as tight a guitar unit as you'll find, and the familiar Jagger-Richards catalog of songs makes it easy to sit back and sing along (but it would be nicer for whoever's sitting next to you to stick with lip syncing).
Only two of the tunes don't hold up: "Sympathy for the Devil" drags a little; maybe they've just done it too many times. And "Connection," the second of two Keith-sung songs, is just awful. He's smiling away, ecstatic as ever to be up there, but his vocal is off.
The final verdict: Great concert film, not-so-great story of the band. Advice: See U2 3D, the best concert film around, and rent Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, possibly the best rock documentary ever made.