Monday, June 9, 2014

Stones on Film Week Five: Gimme Shelter (1969)

Directed by: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
Available on Amazon Instant, DVD, and Blu-Ray
You are reading Stones on Film, a 13-part dialogue covering notable Rolling Stones documentary and concert films through a critical lens. Today is week Five. Archive here.
AM: There are many great shots in Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. But the central, bone-chilling image shows a man in black vest leaping on another man, dressed in lime green. The man in the vest raises his hand in two rapid, staccato flashes, stabbing the man in the green twice. He stabs him three more times that the camera doesn’t capture.
The man in the green suit was Meredith Hunter, a black man from Berkeley at a racetrack in nearby Altamont to see a free Rolling Stones concert. He had a gun when he was stabbed by the man in the vest. The killer was Alan Passaro, one of the Hells Angels hired by the Stones to secure the concert.
It’s a horrible moment, and the film circles back to it. Placing Mick Jagger in an editing bay with David Maysles, watching the moment in super-slow motion, pointing out the outline of Hunter’s gun, visible against his girlfriend Patty Bredahoft’s white dress. Jagger says he couldn’t tell what was going on. “It’s so horrible,” he comments after watching the footage, his face blank and drained of its usual insinuations.
That moment, which comes near the end of the film, colors the 90 minutes. Earlier, when you witness the disorder that led up to the concert, it’s setting the scene. When you see blood on the fingers of a Hell’s Angel, it’s a bad sign. When the Stones begin “Under My Thumb”--a fantasy of total control--evil things are portended.
At least, that’s how I make sense of Gimme Shelter. I’ve seen the movie before and have read more about Altamont than is probably healthy. What Zwerin and the Maysles brothers have constructed is a film that’s both deeply self-conscious and fully open to interpretation. It’s a testament to the film--don’t think I’m spoiling much when I say this is the best film that we will be writing about--that after four decades of analysis, it’s still an open book.
Everything is presented without context. The filmmakers provide no narration, or title cards. Important figures pass through Gimme Shelter unidentified. If you do not know what Jerry Garcia looks like, you will not understand that it’s him saying “oh, that’s what the story is here? Oh bummer.” Since no one on screen mentions it, don’t expect to learn that the Grateful Dead decided not to play after hearing of turmoil onstage. Or that the Dead recommended the Hell’s Angels in the first place.
The openness makes the ethics of the situation difficult to grapple with. Could anyone have stepped in and brought order to the concert? Whose fault is it that Altamont turned so sour in the first place? Can you blame a band for the death of an audience member?
If my focus seems removed from the Stones and their performances, that’s because the film encourages that. Not that you don’t see the Stones play--there’s a decent amount of concert footage from Madison Square Garden, as well as the Altamont show. Some of it’s quite good, although I wonder what you make of the decision to intersperse these context-less performances throughout Gimme Shelter. And of course you hear Jagger talk a bit, and get a good stare at the silent faces of Richards and Watts now and again. In some yet rarer screentime, you even see the Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman smiling sweetly.
But the filmmakers don’t seem particularly interested in the Stones as a unit, or as people. Maybe this is why, in his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, Stanley Booth paints the Maysles brothers as clueless, running around without comprehending the Stones or their milieu. Which, really, you don’t have to when filming a documentary that offers up its subjects without identification or comment.
That’s what allows this movie to succeed. It’s not a shallow portrait. It’s not a record of a mediocre show. It’s not a band-sponsored project. Gimme Shelter works because it avoids the trappings that Stones movies typically fall into.
At the same time, there’s considerable craft on display here. I thought the film did an exceptional job capturing the spirit of the Altamont crowds and campgrounds. As Jagger howls “Sympathy for the Devil” at Altamont--there’s that song again--we’re finally seeing a crowd as dark and as on edge as a Rolling Stones song. At several points, Gimme wanders around Altamont, capturing freaks kissing, freaks passing out roses, freaks raising money for the Panthers, and freaks selling acid. Freaks streaming down a road too small to handle them all, over the dull brown hills of December in Northern California, to a racetrack where a man would be killed.
Even though it’s opaque, Altamont has a sense of place, and a clear chronology in the film. Much of the rest of Gimme Shelter--even great moments like the trip to Muscle Shoals--lacks grounding, and seems to be floating around in relation to this one event.
So much to discuss with this film. What do you make of the Maysles and Zwerin, and their Direct Cinema? Can they be forgiven for cutting off Tina Turner’s epic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”? How did the Stones sound? And, finally, who’s at fault for the death of Meredith Hunter?
NS: It was wrong that the Maysles brothers cut off Tina Turner when they did. Her vocal performance, and the manner in which she grips and fondles her microphone (which can only be described as “suggestive”) is an unexpected highlight of the film. Also, the filmmakers’ decision to focus only on her face means about two seconds total footage of Ike Turner.
I agree that Gimme Shelter is perhaps the classic live document of the Stones, and likely the darkest (though maybe Cocksucker Blues wins in that category). I’ve seen the movie many times, but with this viewing, I tried to focus on the visual contributions of the filmmakers.
I came to the conclusion that the Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin deserve the majority of the credit for presenting this event so effectively and completely. Though Stanley Booth may have portrayed them as naive in his book, it is this sense of remove from its subject matter that makes Gimme Shelter among the least obsequious and flattering to its subjects of any concert documentary. Earlier, I remember you said, “all concert films are exercise in vanity.” This film might be a rare exception--a concert film that traffics in the basic humanity of everyone involved, the Stones included.
In documentaries such as Grey Gardens and Salesman, the Maysles brothers pioneered what we now call direct cinema, a style that used the recent invention of lightweight, portable cameras to attempt to capture an incident from every available angle. The style has its roots in cinema verite, where the act of recording the event becomes part of the story itself (the Heisenberg principle in artistic form). An early example of this is Nanook of the North, where director Robert Flaherty had his subject smile and acknowledge the camera as he went about his day.
The Maysles contributed to the direct cinema movement in many ways, but one of their prime innovations was their focus on subjects whose behavior becomes warped as they are being filmed. In Gimme Shelter, they flip that idea on its head somewhat. Scenes from Altamont are interspersed with Stones concert footage from Madison Square Garden. The linear part of the film show the Stones in the editing bay, where they watch the scenes unfold in the same order we do. This puts the viewer in the interesting position of reacting to the Stones as they react to themselves on screen.
Early on in the film, David Maysles explains to Charlie Watts, “This gives us the freedom, for all you guys watching this, we may only be on you for a minute. Then go to almost anything.” It’s a hint to the film’s positioning of Stones as performers-cum-spectators. As we watch the Stones smile, grimace, and react to film footage and audio recordings, we are being deluged with post-Altamont speculation and anxiety as if we are there on the scene, slowly learning what is happening. By the end, we know so much about why and how Altamont went wrong, without ever being directly told anything via an interceding narrator or title card. This makes for a rare concert documentary that seems to convey its subject from infinite angles.
Of course, the film’s immersive effect might have been mitigated had the Stones footage not been good. Luckily, it is great. When I first saw the film many years ago, I thought these scenes were darkly lit and difficult to see, compared to paragons of the genre like Woodstock, The Last Waltz, and The Song Remains the Same. As we have progressed through so many previous Stones films, however, I have learned to see the beauty of this approach.
The Stones footage is dark and grainy, and the band behind Jagger is terminally underlit--we only see Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman in brief glimpses, with Richards and Watts only slightly more visible. But their performances are a litany of classic standards. The opening performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is perhaps my favorite version of the song. Richards’ guitar has never been thicker, the riff never more loose and rolling. Tellingly, this version of the song is the only from Gimme Shelter to appear on corresponding concert album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (you see the band taking photos for that album’s cover early on).
The only filmmaking choice I disapprove of is the series of slow motion dissolves in “Love in Vain.” Other than that, the film’s sound editing really crackles. The band’s “Sympathy for the Devil” is more similar to the Rock & Roll Circus version, a saga moreso of twisting guitars than Latin polyrhythms. The version of “Under My Thumb” carries you along, even as you are aware of the subtle violence underneath. And it’s great to see them perform a few new songs, like “Street Fighting Man” and “Honky Tonk Women.” Charlie is amazingly tight throughout, and he looks good, too. Mick Taylor and Keith--what  else can I say about their perfect guitar fusion? I think I’ve reached the limits of acceptable superlative adjectives. It seems every kink the band had struggled with during the Hyde Park concert had been ironed out to perfection. From what I can tell, not even Bill makes a mistake.
You asked if we can determine who finally is at fault for the death of Meredith Hunter. As the film (and at one point, Grace Slick) makes clear, there is plenty of fault to apportion to nearly all the parties involved with the show, the band included. The film includes many scenes of attorney Melvin Belli negotiating behind the scenes to find a location for a free Stones concert in San Francisco. I have wondered in the past why Belli allowed these scenes to be filmed, as they do not seem to put him or most other parties involved in a good light. The scenes show him bullying, cajoling, having tense arguments, and bragging about the money he will receive from the event. With the amount of time he is featured in the film, you might think he is meant to be positioned as a (perhaps the) villain.
However, seeing this film now has changed my mind about Belli. If I had to accord blame to the single party, I think it would have to be to the owners of the Altamont speedway, who agreed to have a concert despite not having the space, resources, and time to do it right. The film makes this fact (and the fact they are doing this to generate publicity) clear on many occasions. One scene in Belli’s office shows the Altamont team discussing the amount of parking space, which they calculate to be around 12,000 vehicles. But, someone points out, there are something like 80,000 cars on the road, all heading to the concert. Their answer basically amounts to “maybe we can find some more parking in time.” They don’t.
But there were so many other problems with Altamont as well. There was a lot of bad acid going around San Francisco that winter in 1969. A lot of stupid people, too. The combination of acid-fried, mentally damaged freaks and violent, prone-to-anger Hells Angel was doomed to be tragic. Blame could be laid endlessly, should I choose to lay it.
But before we go, I’d like to ask you if there are ways in which this film shows a hopeful or positive side to the concert. Gimme Shelter gets a rap as a film that shows the dark undercurrent of the hippie dream, a film that corresponds with the Manson murders and stuff like that. But if you look carefully, there are scenes in which the film unapologetically show the audience’s joy and wonder. For instance, I noticed a number of shots showing the Angels really digging the hell out of the Stones music (despite Sonny Barger’s protestations), as well as other scenes showing the Angels throwing confetti in the crowd. Are there any moments in the film that seem like something more out of Woodstock?
AM: You’re right: Gimme Shelter makes it difficult to point the finger. And that helps make it the complicated document that it is. Despite all the concert footage, I don’t really see the film as a concert movie, per se. It’s not an exercise in vanity, as you say, and I think that’s why.
I didn’t dwell on Gimme’s lighter moments in my first post. That’s because the film’s scenes orbit around the death that we see, and then see again, towards the end. But it’s not so simplistic as to be all doom and gloom. I had trouble finding hopeful moments in the material that’s directly connected or at Altamont. But I think that’s just me, it’s definitely there, out there in the crowd. The shots of fans walking away in the blinding sun are gorgeous.
There are lovely moments all over the film. I loved the cover shoot for Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. Charlie’s on an empty highway with a dusting of snow in its median. It’s a nice counterpoint to the claim--heard moments before in Madison Square Garden--that the Stones are the greatest rock and roll band in the world. And it shares the absurdity of being in a rock band: here’s a grown man riding a mule, for a photo shoot.
A little later, when we first see the Stones in the editing bay, Charlie lets slip one of the sweetest smiles I’ve ever seen. Sweeter even than the Wyman and Taylor ones I mentioned above.
And I could watch an entire movie of the Stones at Muscle Shoals. There’s a wonderful scene where they’re listening back to a take of “Wild Horses,” almost two years before the world would hear the song. Jagger’s listening, throwing back J&B. Keith’s on the ground, whispering along to one of the all-time great rock ballads in his snakeskin boots. Charlie’s just asleep. Later, when he gazes directly into the camera, I realized: Charlie, we need your memoir. Please.
It’s the accumulation of such details, most of them not so sweet, that makes Gimme Shelter. It succeeds on its specificity. I’m glad that we were able to make it through round one without mentioning ‘the death of the sixties.’ To my mind, that’s a meaning that’s been imposed on Altamont, not something inherent in the event itself. The movie is too richly detailed to support a reading like that.
Put another way: Gimme Shelter and Altamont make nice examples for someone invoking the death of an era, but looking at the concert through that lens isn’t revealing. The culture was shifting, but Altamont was an outlier in that shift, not some sort of new normal.
OK, let me (finally) get to the music. First off, and I’m sure you agree, Tina Turner’s vocal performance stands on its own merits. The mic-stroking is attention grabbing, sure, but take a closer look: Turner is literally crying. She’s at the helm of a slow, epic take that the horns rips wide open. Incredible, and impossible to follow.
The other supporting acts don’t get close. The Flying Burrito Brothers sucked. And the Jefferson Airplane, while they’re actually playing, are pleasant enough. But it’s an aimless pleasantness, and the vocals are pretty damn rough.
The Stones, on the other hand...have gotten quite a bit better since Circus and Park. I didn’t care for the Hyde Park “Love In Vain,” but the one they do here slays that version. They translate the loneliness into an arena-ready vastness. Go big, get lonely.
The 1969 “Satisfaction” is a mighty, riotous beast, something between the original and Fun House. Amidst the sharp edges of Taylor and Richards’ guitar work, there’s a new section where Mick crows about getting satisfaction in the morning. “I believe I’m gonna get it,” his boast goes, and it sounds like a response to Muscle Shoals Hall of Famer Aretha Franklin.
Throughout, this is a confident, more assured band than we saw in films from 1968 and earlier in 1969. I’d say the MSG material sounds better than the stuff at Altamont, where they were outdoors, weren’t in control of the situation, and Mick was dressed as Harley Quinn. But in these concerts, you get intimations of where the Stones are headed. Mick Taylor is the wildcard, turning “Jumping Jack Flash” into a proto-“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and smearing electricity over the stomp and snarl of “Sympathy.” Good things were clearly in store.
Finally and tangentially, it’s always seemed to me like Satan disappeared from Stones songs for a few years after Altamont. In the previous three years, they had recorded Your Satanic Majesties Request, “Sympathy for the Devil,” and the Satan-invoking “Monkey Man.” But between 1970 and 1972, this part of their mythology (unsurprisingly stolen from the blues), disappears. And when it does resurface in “Dancing With Mr. D,” it seems more cartoonish than before.
It sounds conspiratorial, but do you think the Stones wanted to downplay the devil stuff after being associated with something worse than drug charges? Or am I not studying my Sticky Fingers liner notes closely enough?
NS: It’s a measure of Gimme Shelter’s ability to resist the easy answers of the common concert movie narrative that the questions you asked have been so challenging to answer. I had never thought much about why the Stones relinquished talking about the devil until the silly “Dancing With Mr. D” on Goats Head Soup. However, I did notice during the film’s Altamont scenes a sense that Mick is gradually realizing the danger of having so powerful a public stage. You can see this earlier as he asks the crowd, helplessly, “Who’s fighting, and what for?”
Later, during “Sympathy,” it is not Mick’s performance, but rather the audience’s response, that the Maysles (and a group of cameramen including George Lucas) focus on. People run on stage and try to grab Mick. Fights keep breaking up in the crowd. Mick has to tell the crowd to quiet down several times. There’s something about “Sympathy”--call it a subsection of the audience’s callous, ironic identification with a figure of absolute evil--that makes the audience hungry for spectacle and violence, beyond even what Mick and his band can deliver.
It has been demonstrated very often in previous documentaries that Mick wields an incredible amount of power onstage, and this is something he is sometimes visibly uncomfortable with. Occasionally, you see him using this power for good, like telling the audience at Hyde Park to keep their mess minimal and behave. But here his paeans to non-violence do no good. The audience is not there to venerate Jagger, but to celebrate a type of behavior that is inflated in a fraction of the Stones’ music, the aforementioned “Sympathy,” “Monkey Man,” and Their Satanic Majesties Request (which, despite its title, does not have a sound I would call “satanic” for the most part).
I wonder why the Meredith Hunter altercation happened specifically during “Under My Thumb.” Not in the sense of what it meant symbolically for the song--I’m sure that was not a concern of Hunter or his attacker at that time. What I mean is if the Stones’ music leading up to that moment had a part to play in Hunter drawing his knife, or if it was just incidental to an inevitable confrontation. I would be more inclined to guess it was the latter. The Stones provided an excuse, but a concert this big and slapdash with so many acidheads and freaks mixed with the Angels might have been explosive regardless, even for the Grateful Dead or QMS or someone else.
Glad you mentioned the final shot of the film, with the dazed kids walking away from the concert. Of the films we have watched so far, Gimme Shelter has the best ending. The live version of “Gimme Shelter” played over this scene is so massive, you can get a sense of why the violence in these songs is so seductive (and hard-rocking). You can also see, specifically in this scene, why Martin Scorsese features the song so often.
As you said, this film and this moment aren’t meant to be symbolic of anything like “the death of the 60s.” That is a characteristic of the film that has been imposed by critics and viewers after the fact, not something the filmmakers intended. To suggest that the Maysles were intending to sum the historical importance of this event as an “end of an era” is ridiculous. The film is simply an exploration of an event, what went wrong, and why it might have been destined to go wrong, shown from a variety of perspectives.
My favorite moment of the entire film is another one that you mention, where the Stones sit in the studio listening to “Wild Horses.” The moment specifically is when Charlie’s eyes move upward and stare directly at the camera. I have often thought of this moment during idle passages in my life. What was Charlie thinking at that exact time? Is there a reason he looked at the camera at that moment? Was it simply curiosity, or a feeling in the music? Was he thinking of the effect it might have on the viewer?
Films have often made dramatic use of that moment where the actor’s eyes turn to directly to face the camera, an effect that actors try to avoid 99% of the time. You can see why. When someone stares directly back at you, the voyeur, it is scary and shocking. The film becomes a little bit about you, watching it. I’m sure the Stones had a similar dreadful feeling of being watched after the fact as they sat in the editing bay, trying and failing to parse the reasons behind Altamont.

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