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 •