Gimme Shelter is the film I’ve seen more than any other. I guess you could say I was obsessed with it for a spell. I saw it first during its premiere New York run in late 1970. Back home in North Carolina shortly thereafter, I followed it through the celluloid food chain of the time. Saw it a bunch of times when it hit the first-run theater in Chapel Hill. Saw it a few more times in adjacent towns. Saw it when it returned to Chapel Hill for late shows. Saw it again when it made the campus film-society rounds in 16 mm. Saw it for a final time (or two) in a Duke science classroom, as a campus late show. For a while during all that, a friend and I had a contest to see who could see it the most. I’m pretty sure I won.
A couple of months ago, I saw it for the first time, probably, since 1972. Given my history with the film, I suppose I expected it to seem somehow different or lesser, a relic of faded enthusiasms. But it didn’t. It seemed exactly as it did back then, and for ninety-one minutes I found myself obsessed all over again. When I took the tape back to the video store, the girl at the counter said, “What is it with this film? It’s just flying off the shelf these days. We can barely keep it in the store.”
What is it with Gimme Shelter? I gave up trying to answer that question a long time ago. When a friend surprised me with it recently, I said something about “demonic charisma” and then spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out what I’d meant.
The phrase was intended not so much for Mick Jagger, the strutting pseudo-Satan at the center of Gimme Shelter, as for the film and what it shows us of rock and roll. I didn’t return to the movie all those times because I was insane about the Rolling Stones, after all; I was only a big fan. What got me was the way Gimme Shelter took two obsessions, film and rock, and turned them into mirror images that could not begin to contain all the meanings—a helix of delight and guilt, identification and dismay—thus conjured. Some of Orson Welles’s films have a similar sense of blurring artistic compulsions. But it wasn’t until I ran across Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up, which uses film to mirror film and poses its own daunting ethical questions, that I found a movie that truly equaled Gimme Shelter in its strange fascinations and self-enclosing revelations.
Directed by the team of David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter documents the Stones’ 1969 U.S. concert tour, which ended with the disastrous free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway, where a “security” force of Hells Angels wreaked general havoc and killed one young man only feet from the stage as the Stones performed. The film kicks off, though, earlier in the tour, with Jagger cracking “Welcome to the breakfast show” to a Madison Square Garden crowd, after which the Stones launch into a blistering “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—one of several numbers that show the band and its taunting, kinetic front man at their late-sixties best, thunderous and glazed in an almost princely self-confidence.
From the first, it’s clear this can be no mere concert film, and even the term documentary is problematic because events have already transformed the Stones tour into drama, tragedy, myth. Or are those words too noble for the tawdry, deadly debacle at Altamont? Recognizing what the audience already knows, Gimme Shelter follows a double course throughout: even as the tour grinds heedlessly toward its calamitous end, the Maysles team shows us the Stones—mainly Mick and Charlie Watts—months later, looking at and reacting to the footage on a Moviola, as if reliving a crime in which they turned out to be unknowing participants. Though their expressions are suitably grim and appalled, the chance to display them can seem an easy, empty expiation. Still, however you judge that, the film takes as its subject not only the events it covers but the experience of watching those events on film, and thereby implicates the viewer in its tight mesh of art, crime, and evasion.
Even leaving aside that cumulatively crucial self-reflexive aspect, Gimme Shelter stands as the best rock film, if you take that to mean the one in which the musical event is most closely shadowed by cinema. It had that title practically from the outset. The Maysles brothers were brought in, after the tour had already started, when Haskell Wexler, maker of the radical Medium Cool, bowed out; the Stones apparently found that his approach reminded them too much of Godard and Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One), which they had disliked making. Godard, however, had previously worked with Albert Maysles and declared him America’s best cameraman.
Godard’s Weekend was evoked when the Altamont disaster was reported the following month by Rolling Stone, which even found reason to cite Brando’s Viva Zapata! Of course, “Felliniesque” was a ubiquitous tag; when the film came out, Esquire dubbed it “our own Satyricon.” But the most immediately important movie shadowing Gimme Shelter hadn’t yet opened. The Stones had missed Woodstock and word was already circulating that the film about it was terrific. Altamont was to be the band’s retort to both the peace-and-love concert and its cinematic record; there was even talk of getting the Stones’ film into theaters before its competition appeared. (From the standpoint of the “film generation,” that competition now looks almost absurdly epochal. Scorsese worked on Woodstock. George Lucas ran a camera on Gimme Shelter.)
The Maysles brothers’ film, though, had a bad rap before the shooting stopped. Charges were leveled that Altamont happened solely as a backdrop for the movie the Stones wanted to make: “Woodstock West,” Rolling Stone dubbed it. The reality behind that is surely more com-plex—the Stones had been approached in England about staging a free concert in San Francisco—but there was no doubt that the concert’s location had been moved from Golden Gate Park to Sears Point and then, only a day ahead of time, moved again because of a dispute over the film rights. If the Maysles brothers are vulnerable to any charge, it’s that Gimme Shelter includes several scenes of Stones lawyer Melvin Belli (who had defended Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald) and various management types negotiating the site of the concert yet never mentions its own influence on the events it chronicles.
Such withholding had its consequences. Pauline Kael’s 1970 review of the film begins: “[H]ow does one review this picture? It’s like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination or of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. This movie is into complications and sleight-of-hand beyond Pirandello, since the filmed death at Altamont—although, of course, unexpected—was part of a cinema verité spectacular. The free concert was staged and lighted to be photo-graphed, and three hundred thousand people who attended it were the unpaid cast of thousands. The violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema verité jackpot.
“If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone? Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema? The Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934 was architecturally designed so that Leni Riefenstahl could get the great footage that resulted in Triumph of the Will . . .”
Kael’s venomous tirade might be attributed in part to the fact that she didn’t have a rock-and-roll bone in her body. Yet the film offered grounds for her arguments, which indeed stung. The filmmakers wrote a reply to the review, but the New Yorker at the time didn’t print letters, so it wasn’t published until 1998, when it appeared in Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. Answering Kael’s silly assertion that the chaotically thrown-together Altamont show was designed and lit for their cameras, they repeat what they say they told the critic on the phone: “In fact, the filmmakers were not consulted and had no control over the staging and lighting at Altamont. All the cameramen will verify that the lighting was very poor and totally unpredictable.”
Even more to the point of the critic’s main argument is this: “Miss Kael calls the film a whitewash of the Stones and a cinema verité sham. If that is the case, how then can it also be a film which provides the grounds for Miss Kael’s discussion of the deeply ambiguous nature of the Stones’ appeal? All the evidence she uses in her analysis of their disturbing relationship with their audience is evidence supplied by the film, by the structure of the film, which tries to render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger’s double self, of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even the pathos of his final powerlessness. These are the filmmakers’ insights and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery.”
In fact, Gimme Shelter cannot contain all the moral quandaries it evokes—including its own impact on events—and that, like it or not, is part of its brilliance and fascination. It reminds us of the ever unsteady relationship between art and morality, and that the strict correlation we wish to find between the two may ultimately be necessary but illusory. The climactic scenes at Altamont have a beauty that’s all the more alluring for being so damned and damning. The scene, lit by fires and hazy with smoke, looks like some medieval village of the godforsaken, yet the 16 mm images—much of the camera work is extraordinary—also make it appear as heroic and ruggedly elegant as a disaster painting by Delacroix.
We hesitate to let a primarily aesthetic response gain the upper hand here, but at least for this rock-and-roll fan, it always does. The film refuses to be indicted as a bad documentary because it has made itself into real, undeniable art that owes part of its harrowing great-ness to its circular proof of art’s limitations. After Altamont, there was a long and acrimonious barrage of blame laying, and surely the Stones deserved much of that. Both supremely egotistical and sublimely naive, they had handed the concert’s security to the Hells Angels thinking they were like the Angels in England, or Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. Altamont was supposed to be like Woodstock, only groovier, and their movie would be groovier still. Instead, the Stones got what no one had bargained for: a terrifying snapshot of the sudden collapse of the sixties.
Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic and filmmaker based in New York City. This essay originally appeared in the August 9–15, 2000, issue of the New York Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.