The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Gimme Shelter (1970/USA/dir. Albert & David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin) appeared at #7 on my original list.
What it is • In 1969, the Rolling Stones were on top of the world. A few months before the events captured in this documentary, they were first dubbed "the greatest rock and roll band in the world." That world they were atop of was in turmoil, an ecstatic turmoil if you were young and adventurous enough to take part. No subsequent American epoch can claim a fraction of the energy generated by the counterculture and the intersecting New Left in the autumn of '69. The Stones, ever-eager to capitalize on the zeitgeist, toured the U.S. while pondering how best to connect with this moment. Renowned in subsequent decades for their high ticket prices and uncompromising business sense, they wanted to offer something more idealistic on this tour - their first since 1966 (the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks all abstained from touring in that three-year period, some more voluntarily than others). Woodstock had unfolded just a few months earlier, and the Stones proposed their own free concert on the West Coast, relocated at the last minute from San Francisco to the Altamont Speedway. Savvy to the currents of the time, the band chose Albert and David Maysles, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary nonfiction filmmakers, to document their moment of triumph. Unlike the catch-all potpourri of Woodstock, the Maysles' documentary is judicious, focusing on a few key events (aside from some cutaways to press conferences and other interstitial material). The first is the joyous Madison Square Garden concert in November, an exciting but thoroughly professional affair (frenzied fans leaping onstage are wrestled to the ground by perpetually busy bodyguards). Though the emphasis is on the Stones' set, the directors make room for opening act Ike & Tina Turner, who steal the show (a bit defensively, Jagger - shown watching this clip later - mutters, "It's nice to have a chick, occasionally"). The second event is the legal/financial wheeling and dealing of celebrity attorney Melvin Belli as he arranges the Altamont deal, while the third event is a trip to Muscle Shoals. There the Stones record a few tracks that will land on their seminal 1971 album Sticky Fingers. About half the film zeroes in on the fourth, most important event: Altamont. Hippies endure massively bad acid freakouts. The Hell's Angels, disastrously, enforce their notion of security around the stage. Jefferson Airplane is interrupted by violence in the audience, and the members of the Grateful Dead fly away shortly after landing (the Stones took a lot of heat for hiring the Angels, but apparently Jerry Garcia was the one who encouraged them to do so). And finally, the Stones appear before the seething crowd, nervously performing "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Under My Thumb"...as a man is killed before their (and our) eyes. A crucial fifth event - participants visiting the mundane room where Gimme Shelter is being edited - unfolds surrounding all this other material. Mick Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts wearily watch the footage, recognizing that they were present for a decisive, awful moment in rock history, but unable to fully assess its significance or their own responsibility.
Why I like it •
I mean...this is the Rolling Stones in 1969; what's not to like?! (Though truth be told, Tina Turner gives the best performance in the movie). Of course, it's much more than a concert film. Gimme Shelter offers the distinct sensation, almost unparalleled in American film history, of capturing a particular period in the exact moment of its apex, collapse, and transition. The Altamont catastrophe was, perhaps more than any other incident, the logical endpoint of the sixties. And boy is the sixties ever on display in this movie. There is no sense that the decade has dispersed its energy yet but it also really has nowhere else to go after this, a point even more apparent in hindsight. This really is a snapshot of the era's high-water mark. Finally, maybe most important for its placement on a favorite films list...this is a Maysles Brothers production. There are no other documentary filmmakers I adore more, whether they are following a bunch of middle-aged salesmen or a hip rock group - and not just the Stones; they directed the best Beatles movie, What's Happening, though it remains hard to see, having been hacked up and incorporated into a messy hybrid DVD called The First U.S. Visit. In fact the only time I've seen What's Happening in its original form was in a small venue in New York, on the fortieth anniversary of the Fab Four's Ed Sullivan appearance. After the screening, an old man stepped to the front of the little auditorium. He looked a little confused, and I wondered if he was looking for the bathroom, but as it turned out it was Albert Maysles himself, sitting down on a stool to answer questions from the couple dozen people in attendance. The Maysles were extraordinary innovators, taking the fashionable cinema verite methods of the sixties to their extremes, producing some of the most iconic nonfiction films of all times (one - Grey Gardens - even spawned a musical; and I'm both embarrassed and excited to say I still haven't seen their most celebrated work; excited because it remains on the horizon). And it wasn't just the Maysles who made Gimme Shelter extraordinary - their editor, Charlotte Zwerin, established such a sophisticated structure and dynamic rhythm that she received co-directing credit on this and several other of their productions. Some of the films in my top ten are movies I can only see occasionally - they are elevated experiences best appreciated in a certain mood. Gimme Shelter, on the other hand, is a captivating portrait of a zeitgeist which I could view over and over in a loop...at least theoretically. In fact, the violence of the ending, however obscured, is disturbing to witness; in her scathing review, Pauline Kael suggested that Gimme Shelter was a snuff film. The stabbing of Meredith Hunter is treated with sobriety and self-awareness, but there is something discomfitting, and profound, about its placement within the spectacle and excitement of a Stones concert film. As entertaining as much of Gimme Shelter can be, at its heart the film is deadly serious. The sixties may have been fun, but they were a hell of a lot more troubled - and troubling - than that, and Gimme Shelter stands as a monument to that realization.
More from me • I sampled exchanges from the Kael-Maysles debate as part of my Remembering the Movies retrospective, where I would cover films that came up ten/twenty/thirty/etc years ago on a given weekend (this was my favorite entry in that series). A clip appears at 3:55 in "To Become Immortal, and Then, to Die...", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. Kinda tangentially to the actual film, I cut a video montage, Symphony of the Devils, to a track from the Stones' Madison Square Garden performance, matching scenes from Haxan (1922) and Hellraiser (1987)/Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) to the dueling guitar solos of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor.
How you can see it • Gimme Shelter streams on Hulu and has been uploaded to YouTube. It is also available for digital rental/purchase on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, and other sites (be warned, though - the "where is this available?" sites generally mix this up with the 2013 drama Gimme Shelter). The Criterion edition is available for blu-ray/DVD rental on Netflix - but it's worth buying for the fantastic special features (not to mention the amazing essays, which can also be found on Criterion's website).
What do you think? • Are there any other concert films you can consider alongside Gimme Shelter - and do any of them extend beyond the performance in their greatness? What's your favorite number in the film? What other Maysles films are your favorites, and do you see any relation between them and this?
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Yesterday: The Passion of Joan of Arc (#8)
Tomorrow: Stille Nacht I-IV (#6)