Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter (1970) movie poster

(1970) dir. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
viewed: 03/04/08

Gimmie Shelter is one of those films that I’ve been kind of interested in seeing for years.  My biggest stumbling block about it is that I pretty much hate “classic rock” and almost all of its purveyors.  This is a personal quirk, due to growing up in a town whose primary radio stations played way too much Beatles and Led Zeppelin and turned me away from mainstream music, especially of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Like I said, that’s just me.

Perhaps not so oddly, I’ve come begrudgingly to an appreciation of the Rolling Stones.  I won’t try to analyze their music or importance here, but just to say that I’ve come to not view them in the same light as the aforementioned bands that I still hate passionately.

After seeing the Maysles Brothers’ film Grey Gardens (1975) at the Catsro, I felt more inspired to see others of their films and had queued Gimmie Shelter up at that point.  Somewhat on a whim, though an interestingly timed whim, I pushed this to the top of my queue and finally watched the controversial film of the Stones and the Altamonte Free Concert that took place in December or 1969, which was the year that I was born.

It has been often cited, the Altamonte Free Concert, due to the violence and deaths that took place at what was intended to be the “Woodstock West” experience, that this event was a cultural turning point, the sign of the “death” of the hippie era.  That, alongside the Manson Family murders earlier in the year, perhaps are the signifiers.  I can’t really comment on that per se.  My understanding of American culture allows for me to more or less not disagree necessarily.

The film documents the Stones’ tour of the States, with footage of a concert in New York, a studio session in Alabama, the concert, its planning with attorney Melvin Belli, and a film editing and review session with the Maysles brothers and Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, reviewing the footage, the events, and leveeing small commentary on it.

During the early part of the film, one is struck by how close the fans are to the stage, with their arms on it, the singers only feet away, occasionally closer.  You don’t see that at any large venue really with a band with the popularity that the Stones had in 1969.  Also, the Maysles portraiture of the Stones themselves, mainly Mick Jagger, whose swagger and style the cameras capture and appreciate.  At one point, the film gets less “purely” documentarian (fly on the wall style) and does some double images of Jagger singing.  There is an aspect of adoration(?) perhaps?  Recognition of a rockstar in his prime, a band, arguably one of the “greatest” of rock and roll, in their prime, playing some of their best music.

But as the film moves forward, there is an aspect of foreshadowing, with enraptured fans rushing the stage and being roughly and sternly pulled off-stage.  I say foreshadowing, because that is how it struck me, especially in consideration of the fans proximity to the band.  In a sense, there is no pure foreshadowing, because after one of the first concert sequences, we are drawn into the editing room with Jagger and Watts, reviewing and commenting on the footage.

One of the Maysles brothers plays a recording of a radio talk show broadcast from the Bay Area, in which the summarization of the tragic events is played, including a call in from a member of the Hell’s Angels, who defends their role at the concert saying that they had never been formally hired to do anything.

The concert itself is a disaster.  Originally planned for Golden Gate Park, until the city of San Francisco bowed out, the concert was then targeted for Sears Raceway in nearby Sonoma County, but at the last minute, and I do mean last minute, they move it to the Altamonte Speedway in East Alameda County.  The whole operation had to be moved overnight, the stage, the facilities, and everything, when they anticipated an enormous crowd (ultimately estimated around 300,000).  It should have been canceled or post-poned.

What they ended up with was a mass of heavily stoned humanity, including the Hell’s Angels, whose role of “security” was sawed-off, weighted cue sticks for beating, and a lot of pretty big name bands at the time.  Though only Jefferson Airplane and the Flying Burrito Brothers made the film, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Santana also played, with the Grateful Dead wisely stepping down when they caught wind of the violence.

The key event is the stabbing of Meredith Hunter by one of the Hells Angels, which plays out while the Stones attempt to perform.  The cameras catch the event in vivid imagery, and the Maysles play it back for Jagger and Watts, freeze-framing on the wielding of the knife by the biker and the pulling of the gun by the victim, who died from the beating he took after the sequence.

I think the Maysles turn on Jagger through the film.  During the Stones’ performance at Altamonte, violence is constantly breaking out.  Fans are gesturing toward Jagger to look toward the fights, and Jagger, stopping briefly, begins strutting and dancing and singing again.  The review of the footage ends with a dismissive comment by Jagger, followed by closing shots of people leaving the speedway the next morning.  Watts, earlier in the film, expresses sadness at the events and shock because some of the bikers had seemed nice.

I think that there is perhaps lots more written on the subject, but it does seem that the Maysles do want to impose blame on Jagger of some sort.  While they love and appreciate his magnetism and sensuality, they seem to make him out as morally empty.  I think perhaps that is a bit much, especially based on what is shown in the film.  The tragedies really resulted from a complete lack of genuine planning and out and out bad planning.  Apparantly, the Angels had performed security at concerts successfully before, but paying a biker gang in beer to keep ragingly tripped out hippies at bay during such a massive concert?  Yikes.  But ultimately, throwing such a massive thing together as they did just set the stage for lots of badness.

It’s a powerful movie in many ways, capturing the pulse of culture in its prime, seeing a band that has been known as the “Strolling Bones” for almost 30 years now when they were young and primal and writing and performing at their best.  And who knows, much else, too, perhaps?

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