Called the greatest rock film ever made, this landmark documentary follows the Rolling Stones on their notorious 1969 U.S. tour. When three hundred thousand members of the Love Generation collided with a few dozen Hells Angels at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway, Direct Cinema pioneers David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were there to immortalize on film the bloody slash that transformed a decade's dreams into disillusionment.
Gimme Shelter (1970) film notes by Tova Gannana for Faraway Entertainment
1969, The Rolling Stones were young, their audience was younger, the decade was almost over. The light on Mick Jagger on stage is red. He is impossibly thin-hipped, chiseled, with a long haired sensuality. Look too long and you’ll start to fall under some kind of spell.
Since the 1950’s we have been raised by television. Shown who we are and who we can become, the box makes people famous like the Rolling Stones. Gimme Shelter (1970) by Albert and David Maysles is an experimental film about a rock 'n' roll band and their audience. The Maysles knew they wanted to make a film experience. The audience watching the film sees what the audience watching the Rolling Stones in concert is seeing. All that goes right, the surge of energy felt through the music, and all that goes wrong, the drugs and the violence, can be felt by both the crowd in the film and the film audience. Time is erased through the shared experience of the viewer inside the film and outside. Albert Maysles said, “Everytime I see it, my primary feeling is oh my god those poor kids. Youngsters with all kinds of possibilities of youth. What’s happened to their idealism. So much of it seemed to be washed away in drugs. So it’s a sad story.”
There is the concert that goes well at Madison Square Garden and the concert that is a disaster at Altamont. There are the kids who are on drugs and in love and the kids who are on drugs on a bad trip. Altamont is compared to Woodstock, a movement claiming love, sex, peace, drugs, and rock n’ roll. There is the illusion that Woodstock was without violence and the illusion that Altamont could be peaceful. The Stones and the other bands who perform at Altamont fly in by helicopter, the kids who come as the audience to Altamont arrive by car, drivers snaking across the landscape, caught on film by a camera in the Rolling Stones’ helicopter. There are the known faces in the bands and the unknown faces in the crowd. The film takes place in public and is littered in moments that feel lonely. Mick Jagger on stage falling apart at the microphone clearly in distress over what he is seeing in the crowd before him, singing the last lines to Under My Thumb, “I pray that it’s all right,” just before Meredith Hunter is murdered by the Hells Angels. Gimme Shelter shows people who were ordinary. Who knows what happened to them? There are people loving, entwined on a blanket, a woman blowing bubbles, a man walking with an American flag, a child being held by an adult who looks like he cares about him. There are the people who are freaking out. A scaffold looks unsteady above the crowd where concert goers have climbed to get a better view. A man in white, streamers hanging from his hair, dances violently atop a speaker. The scene feels nothing like a peaceful gathering, but like something witchy brewing in a caldron. Everyone wears a uniform, divided by the Hells Angels in their namesake vests and the hippies who wear what they wear. A naked woman barrels like a bear towards the stage, exposed and out of her mind like she has no mind of her own. We don’t know her name or anything else about her; she represents a movement of Americans on drugs, a reminder that LSD didn’t fix anything. In the October 1966 issue of Playboy Hebert Gold wrote, “In America we now live in a drug culture. It is estimated that six dozen mood pills were consumed per person in 1966. Dracula is blurting chemicals into our blood streams, not sucking the blood out.” At the end of the sixties Psychedelia had gone mainstream, sold at Macy’s and bought by suburbanites.
Gimme Shelter asks questions rather than narrates. It captures rather than dictates the story. We are aware of the camera as we are aware of the Rolling Stones. There is a surrealism to the reality of the film. The Maysles and the editor Charlotte Zwerin film the Rolling Stones watching the dailies on Zwerin’s Steenbeck, “Can you slow it down?” Jagger asks in order to see the murder at Altamont which took place while he was onstage. The Maysles show the Rolling Stones perform in slow motion, the crowd in a trance as the song “Love in Vain” by Robert Johnson is sung by Jagger. The film is full of parallels. Madison Square Garden inside feels orderly. Altamont outside is utter chaos. On arrival at Altamont, Mick Jagger takes a punch to the face. Why this happened is not explained. The axis of the film is the end of the decade; the band and the concerts are the reason and the excuse. The film absorbs everything in its path. There are people the masses want to emulate without knowing who these people are, without knowledge of self in order to not lose oneself to those you emulate. Rock 'n' roll is the perfect set up. The stage above, the crowd below. Drugs and alcohol passed around in both circles. On stage there is money being made, in the crowd is youth and inexperience. There is no wisdom because there isn’t time for that. Gimme Shelter captures all of this on the cusp. Change was happening. The American lifestyle would shift again out of one decade and into the next.
Tova Gannana write for the Seattle Art Museum Film Department and CSA Hitchcock https://thedarkladyofamericanletters.typepad.com/my-blog/