Let It Bleed
Woodstock recorded hot August and won an Oscar. Gimme Shelter documented chilly Woodstock West and did not. Organizer Michael Lang and the Jefferson Airplane are in both. The dayslong New York event produced three deaths, two births, four miscarriages, while the California night evened out at four deaths and four births.
Gimme Shelter is among documentaries, rockumentaries, fiction features, shorts, archival and video footage tracing group and/or individual trajectories of present and ex- band members in the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years on Film.” (To celebrate Albert Maysles’ eighty-sixth birthday, the film is also at Maysles Cinema, with a Q&A with that co-director.) Formed in July 1962 and promoted as bad boys versus the sweeter Beatles and as surly defiance compared to the latter’s whimsy, the “World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” is actually a blasting adaptation of Chicago blues, with Mick Jagger’s androgynous posturing a white sexuality pale alongside that of Tina Turner, who is in the film for a bare minute.
The hour-and-a-half employs the direct cinema approach of Albert, brother David, and Charlotte Zwerin, that is, invisible fly-on-the-wall direction and editing. Objectivity in viewing, however, is hard to come by given four decades’ distance, foreknowledge of an ending that colors everything, and the standard take that that murderous finale epitomized the death of the peace-and-flower-child 1960s.
This record of the final leg of the 1969 U.S. tour is not a portrait of the musicians as people. Jagger and Charlie Watts are the only two dwelt on at all, and that really quite little, as their faces are shown watching monitor reruns of the death: “Can you roll back on that, David?”
Shifting around in time and place, the first three-quarters centers on the Madison Square Garden concert, plus some mellow listening to playback at a Muscle Shoals recording session of “Wild Horses.”
In red spotlights the several live performance sequences do not rely on standard shots of audience or instrumentalists but, rather, allow the camera to caress Jagger in side-studded black trousers and Ω shirt, an Uncle Sam hat and long scarves of varying hues. Audience and performers are tame compared to later ones, while the stage is free of the pyrotechnics that make present-day events more visual spectacle than aural. Amplified by our foreknowledge is the ominous lack of professional security and of separation between stage and pit, viewed and viewers.
Held at the Altamont Speedway after two other venues declined the honor, the concluding, free concert was advertised as a wind-up thank-you (though two million dollars from the tour and revenue from this commissioned documentary overbalanced that gesture). Too much footage is included of lawyer Melvin Belli negotiating at the last minute with location owners and local law enforcement. An estimated third-of-a-million fans turned up, yet the only safety measures provided for were furnished by the anti-hippie Hell’s Angels, hired on advice from the Grateful Dead, armed with lead-tipped pool cues and knives, and paid with five hundred dollars’ worth of beer.
In freeze frame, what may look like the shadow of a pistol against a crocheted dress is rerun, and voices assert that African-American Meredith Hunter did indeed brandish one before he was knifed to death a few feet from the stage. In any case, his death cannot but inform the whole, as a corresponding feeling of dread mounts from the beginning. Some commentators at that time pointed to the cruel irony of the band’s horror as their pretended evil, sympathy for the devil, was confronted by real naked nastiness and their pleas for calm rang scared and little-boyish.
Today the respectable senior citizens-plus band is doing golden anniversary arena shows after a five-year hiatus -- needed to count their money, as has been joked. Gimme Shelter is not a concert film but a statement of a sea change, of the group way back when and of an end to its and the public’s innocence and to the counterculture that once flourished.
(Released by Roxie Releasing and rated "R" by MPAA.)