On the bi-i-i-ig screen, rock film's images dazzle but band's performance fizzles

November 13, 1991|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

At the risk of sounding like ad-copy hype, the Rolling Stones' "At the Max" is a spectacular experience, with the emphasis firmly on the spectacle. This isn't "just like being there" -- it's better than being there, thanks to the hyper-detailed IMAX image. This is probably the closest anyone could ever get to a Stones concert, short of actually joining the band.

Nor are the visuals the only draw. Thanks to its six-channel digital sound and crisp, clean post-production by Chris Kimsey, "At the Max" ends up offering a clearer picture of what the Stones sounded like on the "Steel Wheels" tour than most of the shows themselves (it certainly beat the one I caught).

All told, it makes for an overwhelming concert film.

Too bad it's such an underwhelming concert.

Don't get me wrong, now. It isn't as if the Stones play badly, or at least not in the bum-notes, off-key vocals sense of the term. To tell the truth, there's a confidence and professionalism to the band's performance that would have been unimaginable in the '60s and early '70s.

Back then, though, professionalism wasn't the point. In those days, the Stones were exotic, exciting, dangerous -- qualities that led them to be declared "the world's greatest rock and roll band." But as this performance (recorded at London's Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1990) makes plain, the title is now purely honorary.

As such, what "At the Max" captures isn't cutting-edge rock and roll, but what was perhaps the most elaborate and expensive oldies show ever mounted. Apart from "Start Me Up" (from 1981) and two songs from the "Steel Wheels" album (1990), all the songs the Stones are shown playing date from the '60s and early '70s.

Which, on a certain level, is fair enough -- who among us wouldn't rather hear "Honky Tonk Women" or "Tumblin' Dice" than "Undercover of the Night"? -- except that these aren't terribly convincing renditions of these oldies. Their show-closing Satisfaction," for instance, fumbles its familiar hook and works the chorus to death. It's almost as if the group figures that the mere act of playing the song is effort enough.

That's not to say the Stones are a total loss onstage, of course. Mick Jagger's steely competence gets to be a real drag as the show rolls on -- imagine Robert Stack impersonating Don Knotts, and you'll have a sense of how Jagger looks singing "Sympathy for the Devil" -- and bassist Bill Wyman stands around as if recently embalmed, but drummer Charlie Watts seems charmingly at ease, while the back-up singers seem to be having the time of their lives.

But they don't look to be having half as much fun as Keith Richards is. In fact, the guitarist virtually steals the show every time he's on camera -- his casual grace and understated grit make Jagger's overblown mannerisms seem almost laughable, and that's true whether he's at the mike for a raw-voiced run through "Happy" or strumming the intro to "Honky Tonk Women."

But to be honest, the music becomes a secondary consideration after a while. The real thrill of watching "At the Max" is seeing all the minutiae that's usually invisible to concert-goers -- things like the Teleprompter reminding Jagger "Ruby Tuesday: Yellow Coat," or being able to see exactly where Richards capos his guitar for "Happy" (the fifth fret, in case you're wondering).

'At the Max'

When: Nov. 15 through Jan. 26, 1992; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. A limited number of shows will also be offered at 10:30 p.m.

Where: Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St.

Tickets: $13

Call: (410) 481-6000 to order tickets; (410) 685-5225 for

information.

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