David & Albert Maysles
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
At the moment the familiar riff to the Rolling Stone’s “Jumping Jack Flash” is heard in the opening minutes of Gimme Shelter it is speculatively evident that this will be an orthodox concert film, concerning the self-proclaimed “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” at their height. This opening is rousing — as it is intended — and makes the violence at the film’s end is all the more disturbing.
The distinguishing quality of the Maysles’ 1970 film is that it is neither a straightforward concert film (capturing the Rolling Stones in the final week of their 1969 American tour) nor is it a documentary; either title has become staple in describing the film. The Maysles (brothers Albert and David) have constructed a work ostensibly about itself. This quality is largely due to the unanticipated violence that ensued at the Stone’s final stop in San Francisco.
The concert was held at the Altamont Speedway, for free, attracting some three hundred thousand fans. As a radio announcer states in the aftermath of the show, there were “four births, four deaths, and an awful lot of scuffling,” much of which is apparently caught on film. Much of the film is spent documenting this event from most every standpoint: foremost, the band, the planners, the crowd, the Hell’s Angels providing free security, and the Maysles themselves.
Gimme Shelter is told both chronologically and in reverse. The opening scene displays the Stones at Madison Square Garden, one week prior to Altamont. In the next scene the title credits appear over shots of the respective band members watching themselves, on a monitor, perform at the concert we will see at the film’s end. The ghost of what will occur at Altamont pervades the film with a sort of anticipated dread, especially because its perfect occurrence in the final month of the Sixties lends it a mythological significance. If the end of the Sixties is a singular event, indeed, Gimme Shelter convinces that it is captured on film.
The images that precede the Altamont concert are both hilarious and odd (mirroring, perhaps, the film’s opening and closing). Nudists abound in the crowd, a jaded philanthropist calls for the abolition of the Black Panthers, and drugs — moreover, their effect are scattered throughout. A bearded man, buried deep beneath a drug’s influence, bothers a soundman. This action further aligns the filmmakers with their subject.
The violence in the film increases in rapid showings: Mick Jagger is hit in the face as security moves him through the crowd. In a coinciding action Jefferson Airplane opens, and their lead singer is struck in the face by a Hell’s Angel. During any song in the film, it seems, the camera is distracted by an action in the periphery. Each Hell’s Angel is seemingly equipped with a lead-weighted pool cue, and many of them gain a chance to use the weapon.
The Stones open their set with “Sympathy for the Devil,” and manage through roughly three minutes of it before a fight interrupts them (“Keith! Stop playing!” mutters Jagger in a panicked British brogue). The crowd ebbs, and countless Hell’s Angels fill the stage, step down, and force the entire group some ten yards back. These images are harrowing. The band stands dumb, in awkward disbelief.
At the center of Altamont’s conflict are the Stones: arrogant yet sympathetic once their influence is made known to them with bitter gravity; the audience: the youth intoxicated by the ideas of their time and the myth of world peace; the Hell’s Angels: the arguable cause the film’s violence. Outside this bubble of activity are the Maysles, filming its every action. Here, their gaze is doubly fixed; first to capture the essence of the Stones” live performance, and second to discern their responsibility in regard to the immediate wake of the violence they are related to. There are several repeated images, of crowd members reaching anxiously towards the stage, and of various Hell’s Angels, who share the main stage and stare at the performers with eyes depicting menacing caveat. The camera obsesses these images, and they draw a conflict between the freethinking youth and the annoyed security.
The concert film is the bastard child of film genres. At its worst, these resemble hyper-edited music videos, and even at their rare best display little directorial ingenuity. Despite its belonging as a documentary (a genre known for films whose subjects overwhelm their style), the Maysles’ film is injected with an accomplished technique. The film transfixes, as every minute of footage is married to the film’s attempt to discern reason in the overwhelming fog of violence at the Altamont Speedway.
For music and action Gimme Shelter is so successful in capturing culturally relevant and important material, and as a rock concert with good contemporary music, that it is rendered indefinable in the vocabulary of both criticism and praise. This is a film with a tremendously rare, impassioned ability to distinguish itself as a testament of its ideas rather than as a piece of functional entertainment — which is the resorting ability of film. Gimme Shelter is regarded secondly as a film, firstly as a cultural benchmark.
The Sixties embody a collective, cultural mind state famously unique to no other period. Because this ideology was so popularly idiosyncratic, its conclusion was perhaps inevitable, as is the case, typically, with collective trends and hype. Furthermore, film is by default a mirror of cultural sensibilities. In keeping with this claim, many self-proclaimed culturally conscious films fail to retain the depth of the action they intend to enlarge on screen (for relevance: the formulaic Easy Rider). There exist few films that exclaim their time’s ideas with such gravity as Gimme Shelter.
Upon the closing credits of Gimme Shelter, all of the major players are at a loss to fashion a justifiable reason for the unexpected violence at Altamont. Similarly, viewing the film some 30 years following its initial release, the audience is left in the same, unnerving cold.