Friday, June 13, 2014

Gimme Shelter (1970)

USA, 91 minutes, documentary
Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Photography: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Gary Weis
Music: Rolling Stones
Editors: Joanne Burke, Robert Farren, Ellen Giffard, Kent McKinney
With: Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Tina Turner, Hell's Angels, Melvin Belli, Meredith Hunter

In late 1969, the Maysles brothers (Albert and David), with Charlotte Zwerin, had already made their reputation as iconoclastic documentary filmmakers on the strength of their extraordinary Salesman from 1968 and other projects. The Rolling Stones, just then about to assume the mantle of greatest rock 'n' roll band in all history, had returned to touring after an interruption of a few years that was due to drug busts, turmoil inside the band, and other breakdowns. Also, Woodstock had just happened. Thus, the elements were in place for a first-rate and very interesting concert film. Then events stepped in to help make sure it couldn't be anything else. The more you look at Gimme Shelter now, the more eerie and weird and unfortunate it all seems, which the movie exploits almost perfectly with its dense atmosphere of dread.

The two sides were remarkably in synch from the start. The Maysles team only knew they wanted to make something "more than" a concert film. Mick Jagger, speaking for the band, kept laying down terms the Maysles were already abiding by or happy to comply with: no acting, no recreations of scenes, no voiceover narration, and none of "that Pennebaker shit." So far so good,  except the Maysles knew the last one might be a problem, depending on what Jagger meant by it. They kept nodding their heads and saying no problem, and they kept shooting.

Gimme Shelter more or less starts as a typical enough concert film, with arrivals at airports, press conferences, recording sessions on the road, hotels and buses, and concert footage shot at the Stones' '69 Madison Square Garden show. In performance, Jagger carries on in iconic fashion, wearing a long scarf, cape, and star-spangled top hat. The sound is not very good but the images compensate. Mostly what makes the scenes work as well as they do are the audience reaction shots, which really bring the adulation and the fervor, a sense of what an event it was.

But the movie has already started to subtly enlarge its scope. Zwerin, who was largely responsible for shaping and structuring all the hours that the Maysles and their crews gathered on their travels with the Stones, already knew of course that this story ended in Altamont. It couldn't be ignored, so she worked with the Maysles to establish a thread early in which the Stones are brought in to look at portions of the film. Their reactions to it are in turn filmed. By this time they had already worked with Jean-Luc Godard on the 1968 documentary Sympathy for the Devil so they were evidently comfortable both with cameras and with strange experiments.

Going "meta" like this—"see the Stones, seeing themselves!"—is somewhat arch but it's also a nice way of foreshadowing what the filmmakers have got. As an event, Altamont was well known by the time the project went into postproduction, or at least the general shape of its disaster was. Altamont remains an epic cluster-fuck, the poster child for how to do an outdoor festival wrong on practically every level, capped off by the murder of a concertgoer at the hands of the Hell's Angels, who had informally been put in charge of security, which they provided—no surprise—the Hell's Angels way.

What the filmmakers got, of course, is the kind of thing now called "documentary gold"—a scene so raw, unfiltered, and real that it practically makes the picture essential viewing all by itself. In this case, it was the murder of Meredith Hunter. The army of camera operators the Maysles sent into that strange sea of 300,000 on that December day (trivia fans may enjoy knowing that one of them was George Lucas) somehow happened to catch the murder itself on film, which was subsequently discovered during the editing.

It's a pretty neat way to solve the problem of using an event without exploiting it, though it operates in a gray area. The murder happens swiftly, inside of a thick crush of people just 20 or 30 feet away from the stage. To clarify it for the viewer, it is dwelt on and looked at more than once, including in slow motion and with freeze frames. It has to be shown, arguably, because the context is everything—and because it is the single event that defines Altamont. But it's no simple case of peace-loving hippies assaulted by demented biker gang. Hunter had a gun and was holding it in his hand. He was not merely an innocent bystander but an active player in the violence erupting all around.

That context is crucial, and establishing it may be the single most important part of the film, documenting the turn—as many have pointed out before—from '60s fairy pop dreams of Monterey Pop and Woodstock to something far more grim and depressingly human. The scenes at Altamont are repulsive, taking the images of quaint hippie eccentrics we knew from before and making them impossibly grotesque. Naked people, stoned people, hairy people, with dead eyes and buckskin fringe—it looks like anomie made palpable.

The Stones' performance at Altamont caps it all off perfectly. This is not the riding high of Madison Square Garden. The band is hemmed in on all sides by the mob, which is no more than five or six feet away from them. The stage itself is barely elevated. The band is obviously scared—as they should have been, because the Angels had already assaulted Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane as well as many, many attendees. But they are attempting bravado to get through. It's not the usual scene of concert intimacy, when performers allow the audience close as they perform. This is more like a picture of kidnapping and extortion.

The best description of the Stones and Altamont is in a book by Stanley Booth called The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (released originally as Dance With the Devil). Gimme Shelter is best taken as an adjunct to that book, which is much better able to penetrate and explain the details. They are as complicated as they are unfortunate, and Gimme Shelter does very little to illuminate them if you don't already know them. Still, it remains one of the single most crucial documents of its era. It's not fun to watch but it will never leave you.

Top 10 of 1970
1. Gimme Shelter
2. Performance
3. Catch-22
5. Days and Nights in the Forest
6. Where's Poppa?
7. Goin' Down the Road
8. Woodstock
9. The Conformist
10. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion


  1. Love this movie, which is my favorite feature documentary of all time. Few films have better captured a zeitgeist.

    Incidentally, I wonder precisely what Jagger meant by "that Pennebaker shit"? Perhaps the conceit that the subjects were not being watched? I suppose the Stones interact with the camera a bit more than Dylan (although come to think of it, he was probably referring more to Monterey Pop, in context - what did he object to in that?).

  2. I picked the Pennebaker point out of the DVD commentary track -- I think it was Albert Maysles who told the story and I had the impression it was something objectionable in Monterey Pop more than Don't Look Back. From there I suspect hippie loathing, but really don't know. It's definitely an evocative remark!