Gimme Shelter

An extraordinary document, even 36 years later.

Hard to believe that the Rolling Stones, or the generation they represent, were ever this young.

They look like gods, of course, as they must, since about a third of the movie is about them sitting in recording studios looking glum, bored and strung out as they listen to playback mixes and watch editing run-throughs. 

The songs, of course, speak for themselves.  There isn’t one in here that hasn’t met the test of time.

Is it just me, am I getting old, or do today’s acts just not come up to this standard of excellence?  It’s hard for me to imagine that, 36 years hence, middle-aged men will plop themselves down to watch old footage of Coldplay or Tool or Korn.  Even within the context of the movie, Jefferson Airplane and whoever the other act is seem like pale, confused kids to the Stones.  Except for Tina Turner, who easily holds the screen, electrifying in her ecstatic sexuality.

Will future generations watch Rattle and Hum or Meeting People is Easy or The White Stripes Live in Blackpool to find out what our times were like?

The Criterion transfer is one of the most astonishing I’ve ever seen, the sound as well as the picture.  The songs are rendered palpable in their immediacy and urgency.

Part of the miracle of this movie is that it wasn’t intended to be the document of a tragedy.  It was intended to document a rock tour.  No one was expecting the tragedy, and it happened on the last day of the tour.  So the Maysles had a startling opportunity and a difficult challenge.  How do you tell the story of the Stones’ 1969 tour, which everyone knows ended in tragedy, and have it be anything but a standard concert film with a real bummer of an ending?

Their solution, which seems simple but must have had them tearing their hair out until they hit on it, was to make the disaster at Altamont the subject of the movie.  They announce, right up front, that something terrible happened at Altamont.  They do this by having a tape of a radio show playing in the editing studio, long after the show, and filming the Stones as they listen to the tape.  So the movie is already about looking back.  And everything else is a flashback.  It’s like the good parts of the tour are an extended dream sequence that we cut back to, instead of concert sequences that the editor has to gussy up somehow.

The decision to make the end of the tour the subject of the movie throws everything into sharp relief.  It creates an almost unbearable tension.  We know something bad is going to happen, but we don’t know where or when.  We start to pick up details as the film goes on.  The editing, which is simple in execution but complex in concept, cuts back and forth from concert footage to the Stones listening to playback of the concert recordings to footage of them traveling from place to place to more concert footage to the Stones watching various film elements in the editing room.  The movie juggles all these time elements effortlessly, never becomes confusing or disorienting.

There’s a weird telescoping effect from this.  There’s the “event,” the concert, then there’s the music from the event, which is the playback scenes, then there is the film of the event, which is viewed at a fair remove.  It sets up a weird echo effect as we watch the event unfold and look back on it at the same time.  It makes us feel as helpless as the Stones do, watching footage of themselves and unable to change the events depicted.

The vibe starts to get worse in the middle third of the movie, when (guess what) the lawyers enter the picture.  Now, it becomes about logistics and legalities, the actual physical effort to get this free concert at the racetrack set up.  Who is liable, where will people park, where will they void their bladders, etc.  The hippie dream smashes up against the hard facts of business, dealt with by impatient middle-aged men in wide lapels, sideburns and bright ties.

As the movie approaches zero hour, the flashbacks and flash-forwards become less and less frequent and as the hour mark passes, the Stones take the stage in Altamont and the time shifts disappear altogether.

The vibe at the speedway is deeply uncomfortable, even 36 years later, inducing a sense of dread, ugliness and unease.  The hippies go from making out and waving flowers to slamming into strangers and grabbing their faces in horror.  The crowd starts to look like escapees from an asylum, beating their heads against speakers, eyes rolled back in their heads.

By the time the Stones hit the stage, the crowd is so unruly that the cameras can only be behind the band.  Mick Jagger, the prince of arrogance and cocksure rooster, is put into the uncomfortable position of being the chastising aunt and flower-child peacemaker.  And he is visibly uncomfortable doing so.  In the other concert footage, as I say, he’s a god, as confident, bold, masculine and charismatic as any performer who ever graced the stage.  Next to a team of Hell’s Angels and 100,000 bad-tripping hippies, he looks frail, timid, frightened, overwhelmed and ridiculous in his garish, absurd costume.  There’s an extraordinary moment in one song where he simply stops moving, stock still, slackjawed at something happening off stage right.  We never see what it was, and soon he starts quivering and dancing again, but the fun has clearly long gone out of this event.  The people are pressed up so hard against the stage, and there are so many people on the stage, that it barely seems like there is a stage any more.  The Stones, trying to play their instruments, can’t see the crowd and keep bumping into concert promoters, techies and Hell’s Angels.  It looks like they’re playing in the middle of a crowded bar.  Not even on the stage of a crowded bar, in the middle.

And then, of course, hell breaks loose and the concert and the movie ends.  We cut back one last time to the editing room, where Mick watches the footage of a man stabbed to death 20 feet or so away from him and we see the whole sixties dream fade from his features.  He stands up, puts on his coat and announces that he’s leaving.  Well, at least he showed up in the first place.

A young man named George Lucas is credited as one of the camera operators.
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9 Responses to “Gimme Shelter”
  1. eronanke says:

    Good morning – so early!
    Anyway, I was raised on the Stones, and I’ve had the privilege to see them in concert (even if it was only the “Bridges to Babylon” tour), and while I haven’t seen “Gimme Shelter”, I suspect that the energy they have now would have been amplified a thousand fold more than thirty years ago. (OMG, it was 30 years ago, wasn’t it??!)
    At any rate, hiring the Hell’s Angels was Rock and Roll’s biggest mistake, (other than letter the Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper get in that damn plane), and it pretty much killed the spirit of the 60s.

    They should write a song about THAT. “American Cake” or something.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I hear Han shoots the Hell’s Angels first in this edition.

    • Todd says:

      That’s very funny, but, you know, in real life, he did shoot first. That’s why they stabbed him to death.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Alas, the dangers of off the cuff humor like that. I didn’t really know the details, so perhaps I should refrain just so I don’t feel guilty. Of course, with reality being what it is these days, everything becomes a joke, even if it’s not funny.

        If nothing else, I should have spared the world another Lucas-gone-bad joke.

  3. naltrexone says:

    Will future generations watch Rattle and Hum or Meeting People is Easy or The White Stripes Live in Blackpool to find out what our times were like?

    Probably not. I’d venture the following–

    1. There’s quality material beying recorded and released today– it just hasn’t overlapped much with the popular mainstream. What made some of the albums of that era extraordinary is not that they were great. It’s that the were genuinely great and popular at the same time.

    2. It’s not that no recent album has conveyed the zeitgeist of a generation the way that some of those albums did. It’s that the current zeitgeist just isn’t as artistically interesting. It doesn’t matter how well you convey “bored, self-obsessed cynicism” or “spoiled disinterest”– the results just aren’t going to be as compelling.

    3. The Rolling Stones are just badasses. Their lame, geriatric selves are shadows of their former glory and they could still take most modern acts in a fair fight. Not that they’d fight fair, of course.