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I saw the Rolling Stones in concert once, back in the (gulp) late Seventies. Those were the days of marathon mini-festivals staged in acoustic hell-holes like bazillion-seat Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Opening acts Tower of Power and the J. Geils Band tore it up from just after noon until right around dusk. Geils, in particular, incited the largely blue-collar crowd with their heavily blues-based rock. I still remember the husky guy behind me screaming out vocalist Peter Wolf's famed quip, "Take out your false teeth, momma, I wanna suck your gums!" over and over again after Wolf and company had exited the massive stage for the comfort of their groupies' waiting arms.
Our seats were well into the nosebleed section, but we didn't mind. It was, after all, the Rolling Stones we were about to see. The greatest rock-and-roll band in the world. Ever.
Except that this was when the Stones were in their too-cool-to-give-a-shit phase. The world's greatest rock-and-roll band came out and played like the most listless, drugged-out, boring B-circuit cover band in northeastern Ohio. Keith looked drowsy and moved lethargically; the rumor circulating at the time was that he had done so much heroin for so long that he had recently gone to Sweden or Finland or one of those exotic Scandinavian countries and had his blood completely swapped out with a fresh supply. If that was true, the new stuff running through his veins must have been donated by members of Narcoleptics Anonymous. His solos were sloppy even by the Stones' notoriously loose standards. As tired as Richards's playing was, Mick's vocals were worse. The frontman slurred phrases here, chopped off words there, and generally delivered such a perfunctory performance that many of the band's songs were unrecognizable.
Horrendous sound at outdoor stadiums is pretty much a given, but it was no excuse this time. The Stones sounded far muddier than either of their opening acts. Thirty minutes into their set, the band took a break and left keyboardist Billy Preston onstage to play a couple of his solo tunes.
Preston was a godsend. While no one's likely to mention "Nothin' from Nothin'" or "Will It Go Round in Circles?" in the same breath as "Brown Sugar" or "Sympathy for the Devil," Preston's inspired performance upped the ante, intensity-wise. The tension was palpable as the Stones re-emerged. Would the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world allow itself to be upstaged by the hired help?
Of course not. The hour or so that followed was vintage Stones -- Mick prancing and exhorting the crowd, Keith grinding out the chunky rhythm guitar runs, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman pounding out the trademark beat. It was quite a turnaround, from subpar to sublime in record time. It might have been nice to actually be able to see the band without benefit of binoculars, or to hear something other than a vague roar with occasional lucid riffs during the instrumental parts, but why nitpick?
Which is where Rolling Stones at the MAX comes in. Some fifteen years after I saw that microscopic speck running around the stage, heard something vaguely suggestive of "Jumping Jack Flash" echoing off the bleachers, and took it on faith that I was watching Jagger, the Stones have come out with the concert film to end all concert films. Shot over five nights between July and August 1991, during the Steel Wheels tour, At the MAX showcases 89 minutes of the Stones at the top of their game. "Honky Tonk Women," "Tumblin' Dice," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Street Fighting Man," "You Can't Always Get What You Want" -- fifteen songs get the big-screen treatment. And I do mean BIG.
There is simply no way to fully convey the impact of watching the legendary rockers on a screen 60 feet tall and 80 feet wide, backed by a 42-speaker, 14,000-watt sound system, except to say that the IMAX treatment threatens to make all other concert movies obsolete. How you gonna keep 'em down on the 35mm farm once they've been to IMAX? The IMAX screen is so massive you can't take it all in without moving your head. As the movie opens with establishing long shots of the industrial-wasteland stage set (banks of lights, miles of scaffolding, steam billowing out of exposed ductwork, lots of steel and glass) inspired by Blade Runner, the crowd noise builds and you could swear some of it's coming from the seat next to you, even if that seat is empty.
It reminds me in some ways of pro football. Some fans relish the excitement of attending a game in person. They don't mind fighting snarled traffic, walking farther than the Bataan death march to get to their seats, and then blinking and missing the best play of the game. Others prefer the close-up detail they get from a televised contest. No such thing as a bad seat in TV-land.
Viewing an IMAX concert gives you the best of both worlds -- the excitement and communal spirit of group viewing combined with flawless sound and unparalleled proximity to the stage. You're not just close to the stage, you're on it. Unlike conventional movie theaters, there are no distractions, even in your peripheral vision, to detract from the experience. All you see is the IMAX image, not the backs of other patrons' heads or the curtains at the edge of the movie screen. The effect is the polar opposite of the sensation you get from one of those postage stamp-sized multiplex screens. IMAX breaks down the barriers; in short order you forget you're in a theater. It feels as if you've been magically teleported into the film. Sure beats sitting in the upper deck at Municipal Stadium and resorting to binoculars to determine which distant speck is which.