- Gimme Shelter—the Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones are as iconic for the images they have projected as for their music. For four decades, from the T.A.M.I. Show (1964) and six appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s through Martin Scorcese’s documentary valentine Shine a Light (2008), the Rolling Stones have held a [End Page 87] magnetic appeal for filmmakers attempting to catch lightning in a jar. Several films between 1968 and 1972 employed cinema verite techniques in an attempt to capture the Stones at what was arguably their creative peak, among them Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968) Robert Frank’s little-seen Cocksucker Blues (1972), and of course, the Maysles’ well-known Gimme Shelter.
In concept, Gimme Shelter was no doubt intended to play as tour documentary—brothers Albert and David Maysles had produced some of the earliest on-the-ground footage of the Beatles in America in 1964 and had worked with both Marlon Brando and Godard. Albert Maysles had also been a cinematographer on D.A. Pennebaker’s successful festival film Monterey Pop (1968). But along the way Gimme Shelter acquired an unanticipated narrative, culminating in the chaotic and ultimately epochal events of the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in early December 1969, where escalating crowd violence peaked with the stabbing death of a young black man, Merideth Hunter. If Gimme Shelter is indeed, as some have claimed, the greatest rock documentary ever filmed, it is not because of its concert footage. Rather, it is the film’s end-of-the-sixties gestalt, embodied in its tragic progression toward Altamont, which lends it weight not simply as a great rock film but as an important cultural document. As Robert Christgau was to state in Newsday over thirty years ago, “writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended.”
The film begins with a frivolous staged shot of drummer Charlie Watts dressed in armor, riding a donkey, and it ends with a scene of exhausted concert-goers departing Altamont the morning after, as if fleeing disaster. What is bracketed by these shots is the documentary of a tipping point—a sudden pivoting of youth culture from the airy freedoms of the late 60s to portents of the 70s—the fall of Saigon, Watergate and Nixon’s disgrace, an economic slump and national malaise, the debasement of music and drug experimentation from free-flowing forms of expression to simple commerce and abuse.
The Stones of Gimme Shelter were simultaneously provocateurs and accidental messengers. For half its length, Gimme Shelter is a straightforward documentary of life on the road with the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band, teasing crowds with a set of songs that were both libidinous and political. Two years earlier, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Rock and Roll Circus (1968) had portrayed the band in a carnivalesque portrayal, and the members were none too pleased with the outcome. The Maysles’ project was an attempt by the band to communicate their strengths—playing to a live audience—interspersed with depictions of life on the road, backstage, and in the studio (in Muscle Shoals, Alabama). While footage from the originally conceived heart of the film remains central, the events that transpired at Altamont impose a narrative that none of the principles could have foreseen. [End Page 88]
The Altamont concert itself, as depicted in the film, seems largely improvised. Woodstock impresario Michael Lang had originally aspired to hold a free concert with the Stones—a Woodstock West—in Golden Gate Park. When complications arose, the site of the concert shifted to Sears Point Raceway, north of San Francisco, and then to Altamont Speedway only a few days before the event. After the film’s midpoint, a sense of impending violence, tension, and chaos darkens the film as the Stones arrive at the Altamont concert site, helicoptered in over a mass of humanity. The band...