Gimme Shelter, which has a 30th-anniversary run this week at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, bears one rather dubious distinction: It’s the film I’ve seen more than any other. I guess you could say I was obsessed with it for a spell, back when. I first saw it during its premiere New York run, in late 1970. Back home in North Carolina shortly thereafter, I followed it through the celluloid food chain of the time. Saw it a bunch of times when it hit the first-run theater in Chapel Hill. Saw it a few more times in adjacent towns. Saw it when it returned to Chapel Hill for late shows. Saw it again when it made the campus film-society rounds, on 16mm. Saw it for a final time (or two) in a Duke science classroom, as a Freewater late show. For a while during all that, a friend and I had a contest to see who could see it the most. I’m pretty sure I won.
A couple of months ago, I saw it for the first time, probably, since 1972. Given my history with the film, I suppose I expected it to seem somehow different or lesser, a relic of faded enthusiasms. But it didn’t. It seemed exactly as it did back then, and for 90 minutes I found myself obsessed all over again. When I got a poll in the mail from VH-1 asking my opinion of the best rock films ever made, I had not slightest hesitation in naming this one the best of them all.
What is it with Gimme Shelter? I gave up trying to answer that question a long time ago. When a friend surprised me with it recently, I said something about demonic charisma and then spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out what I’d meant.
The phrase was intended not so much for Mick Jagger, the strutting pseudo-Satan at the center of Gimme Shelter, as for the film and what it shows us of rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t return to the movie all those times because I was insane about the Rolling Stones, after all; I was only a big fan. What got me was the way Gimme Shelter took two obsessions, film and rock, and turned them into mirror images that could not begin to contain all the meanings–a helix of delight and guilt, identification and dismay–thus conjured. Some of Orson Welles’ films have a similar sense of blurring artistic boundaries, and of exalting ego and its reflections to the Faustian limit; add in hints of Robert Johnson’s devil’s bargain, and the media-besotted pop frenzy of the ’60s, and you have the film’s basic components.
Made by the team of David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter documents the Stones’ 1969 U.S. concert tour that ended at a disastrous free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway, where a “security” force of Hell’s Angels wreaked general havoc and killed one young man only feet from the stage as the Stones performed. The film kicks off, though, earlier in the tour with Jagger cracking, “Welcome to the breakfast show” to a Madison Square Garden crowd, after which the Stones launch into a blistering “Jumping Jack Flash”–one of several numbers that show the band and its taunting, kinetic front man at their late-’60s best, thunderous and glazed in an almost princely self-confidence.
From the first, it’s clear this can be no mere concert film, and even the term “documentary” is problematic, because even before its filming is completed, events have transformed the Stones tour into drama, tragedy, myth. Or are those words too noble for the tawdry, deadly debacle at Altamont? Recognizing what the audience already knows, Gimme Shelter follows a double course throughout: Even as the tour grinds heedlessly toward its calamitous end, the Maysles team shows us the Stones–mainly Mick and Charlie Watts–months later looking at and reacting to the footage of the tour and Altamont on a Movieola, as if reliving a crime in which they turned out to be unknowing participants. Though their expressions are suitably grim and appalled, the chance to display them can seem an easy, empty expiation. Still, however you judge that, the film takes as its subject not only the events it covers but the experience of watching those events on film, and thereby implicates the viewer in its tight mesh of art, crime and evasion.
Even leaving aside that cumulatively crucial self-reflexive aspect, Gimme Shelter stands as the best rock film ever, if you take that to mean the one in which the musical event is most closely shadowed by cinema. It had that title practically from the outset. The Maysles were brought in, after the tour had already started, when Haskell Wexler, maker of the radical Medium Cool, bowed out; the Stones apparently found that his approach reminded them too much of Godard and Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One), which they had disliked making. Godard, however, had previously worked with Albert Maysles and declared him America’s best cameraman.
Godard’s Weekend was evoked when the Altamont disaster was reported the following month by Rolling Stone, which even found reason to cite Brando’s Viva Zapata. Of course “Felliniesque” was a ubiquitous tag; when the film came out Esquire dubbed it “our own Satyricon.” But the most immediately important movie shadowing Gimme Shelter hadn’t yet opened. The Stones had missed Woodstock and word was already circulating that the film about it was terrific. Altamont was to be the band’s retort to both the peace ‘n’ love concert and its cinematic record; there was even talk of getting the Stones’ film into theaters before its competition appeared. (From the standpoint of the “film generation,” that competition now looks almost absurdly epochal. Scorsese worked on Woodstock. George Lucas ran a camera on Gimme Shelter.)
The Maysles’ film, though, had a bad rap even before its shooting stopped. Charges were leveled that Altamont happened solely as a backdrop for the movie the Stones wanted to make: “Woodstock West,” Rolling Stone dubbed it. The reality behind that is surely more complex–the Stones had been approached in England about staging a free concert in San Francisco–but there was no doubt that the concert’s location had been moved from Golden Gate Park to Sears Point and then, only a day ahead of time, moved again due to a dispute over the film rights. If the Maysles are vulnerable on any charges made against them, it’s that Gimme Shelter includes several scenes of Stones lawyer Melvin Belli (who had defended Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald) and various management types negotiating the site of the concert, yet never mentions its own influence on the events it chronicles.
Such withholding had its consequences. Pauline Kael’s 1970 review of the film begins: “[How] does one review this picture? It’s like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination or Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. This movie is into complications and sleight-of-hand beyond Pirandello, since the filmed death at Altamont–although, of course, unexpected–was part of a cinema-verite spectacular. The free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed, and 300,000 people who attended it were the unpaid cast of thousands. The violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema-verite jackpot.
“If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone? Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema? The Nazi rally of Nuremberg in 1934 was architecturally designed so that Leni Riefenstahl could get the great footage that resulted in Triumph of the Will. … ”
Kael’s fuming tirade might be attributed in part to the fact that she didn’t have a rock ‘n’ roll bone in her body. Yet the film offered grounds for her arguments, which indeed stung. The Maysles and Zwerin wrote a reply to the review, but The New Yorker at the time didn’t print letters, so it wasn’t published until 1998 when it appeared in Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. Answering Kael’s silly assertion that the chaotically thrown-together Altamont show was designed and lit for their cameras, they repeat what they say they had told the critic on the phone: “In fact, the filmmakers were not consulted and had no control over the staging and lighting at Altamont. All the cameramen will verify that the lighting was very poor and totally unpredictable.”
Even more to the point of the critic’s main argument is this: “Miss Kael calls the film a whitewash of the Stones and a cinema-verite sham. If that is the case, how then can it also be a film which provides the grounds for Miss Kael’s discussion of the deeply ambiguous nature of the Stones’ appeal? All the evidence she uses in her analysis of their disturbing relationship with their audience is evidence supplied by the film, by the structure of the film which tries to render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger’s double self, of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even the pathos of his final powerlessness. These are the filmmakers’ insights and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery.”
In fact, Gimme Shelter cannot contain all the moral quandaries it evokes–including its own impact on events–and that, like it or not, is part of its brilliance and fascination. It reminds us of the ever-unsteady relationship between art and morality, and that our wish to find a strict correlation between the two may ultimately be necessary but illusory. The climatic scenes at Altamont have a beauty that’s all the more alluring for being so dammed and damning. The scene, lit by fires and hazy with smoke, looks like some medieval village of the godforsaken, yet the 16mm images–much of the camerawork is extraordinary–also make it appear as heroic and ruggedly elegant as a disaster painting by Delacroix.
We hesitate to let a primarily esthetic response gain the upper hand here, but, at least for this rock ‘n’ roll fan, it always does. The film refuses to be indicted as a bad documentary because it has made itself into real, undeniable art, which owes part of its harrowing greatness to its circular proof of art’s limitations. After Altamont, there was a long and acrimonious barrage of blame-laying, and surely the Stones deserved much of that. Both supremely egotistical and sublimely naive, they had handed the concert’s security to the Hell’s Angels thinking they were like the Angels in England, or Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Altamont was supposed to be like Woodstock, only groovier, and their movie would be groovier still. Instead, the Stones got what no one had bargained for: a terrifying snapshot of the sudden collapse of the ’60s.