REVIEW: Maysles Classic Altamont Doc "Gimme Shelter" Still the Best
by Mia Mask
"Gimme shelter, protect me from the burning rays of the sun. Keep away the evil, be it originated by nature or man. Gimme shelter, help me that so many cruel deeds won’t be done."
(indieWIRE/ 8.17.2000) –It’s not an exaggeration to say Albert and David Maysles‘ famous documentary "Gimme Shelter" (1970), now playing at New York’s Film Forum, about the Rolling Stone‘s ill-fated free concert at the Altamont Speedway, is the best rock film ever made. It is. And you don’t have to like the Stones — or enjoy rock music — to appreciate why the picture holds such a privileged place in film history and American culture. A cult classic, "Gimme Shelter" is more than a concert film. It’s a multi-layered palimpsest upon which social, artistic, historical and cultural ideas are scribed.
The film captures the irrational social phenomenon of American stardom, which inevitably leads people to behave unreasonably, and, in large numbers, feel perfectly justified in losing self-control. Artistically, it marks the apex of a creative moment in American documentary filmmaking when "direct cinema" pioneers Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers were at the height of their prolific careers. Cinematically, the film lingers on the charismatic persona of Mick Jagger, who — like Tina Turner, David Bowie, Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone — symbolized the ethos of the era. Through Jagger’s naïve idealism, famous swagger and the Stones’ blithe worldview, "Gimme Shelter" evokes the counter-cultural politics, sexual permissiveness and laissez faire philosophy of the sixties.
Initially, the documentary was to chronicle the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour of the United States, but became something entirely different. The then so-called "bad boys from England" intended to host a free, San Francisco-based concert as a "thank you" to America. Unable to locate a venue, the concert was finally set at the Altamont Speedway with little advanced planning or foresight. Security was provided by the Hell’s Angels — hired by the Stones on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead — and were paid for their services in beer. The Stones previously used Hell’s Angels for security at a Hyde Park concert without problem, not realizing Hell’s Angels in the U.S. were more riotous, prone to excessive drug use and known for fanaticism. "Gimme Shelter" vividly captures the Angels beating people with pool cues, throwing full beer cans and even assaulting one musician. Obviously, the Angels didn’t comprehend the scene. Rather than grooving to the Stones’ and contentedly consuming their beer, they took the concert at Altamont as an opportunity to open up a can of whoop-ass on the audience.
By the time the Stones got on stage, fights were appearing all over the crowd. The Angels got into a fight with 18-year-old African American, Meredith Hunter, who, when he pulled out a gun, was stabbed to death by one Angel in the camera’s view. By this point, the Stones were playing "Under My Thumb," and were valiantly trying to calm the audience. They were aware some disturbance was occurring, but didn’t realize someone had been killed. Three other deaths occurred at Altamont that day: 2 people in sleeping bags were run over, and one person drowned in a puddle.
Stylistically, the picture adheres to tenets of direct cinema. The Maysles continually cross cut between disparate footage as if it were equivalent. The result: cinematic tapestry, introducing moral ambiguity around the parties (directly and indirectly) responsible for violence. The direct responsibility of the Hell’s Angels for perpetuating an unruly mob is irrefutable. Those indirectly culpable included famed, international trial attorney Melvin Belli (who provided legal aid to stars like Mae West, Errol Flynn, Tony Curtis, and Lana Turner) and the Rolling Stones themselves. The film juxtaposes footage of Jagger expressing hopes for the concert ("It will set an example to the rest of America, as to how one can behave in nice gatherings") with footage of pre-performance setup that looks like a recipe for disaster. Belli was chief among irresponsible parties and the Maysles catch him scrambling to make things lawful at the last minute by poking legal fun at the health and safety concerns of local officials.
What’s amazing about the vision, execution and editing of "Gimme Shelter" is that it’s as if the Maysles saw everything coming: the misguided concept, the cult of celebrity, the lack of planning, the bad LSD trips, and most of all, the excessive violence which led to murder. What should have been a West Coast Woodstock fell prey to the militancy of a Harley nation, rapidly moving from the dangerous and deadly.
[Mia Mask is a contributing film critic to indieWIRE.]