Gimme Shelter (1970)

*. Watching people watching themselves. Metafilm or narcissism? Or are they the same thing?
*. How much of the Maysles’s success was based on being in the right place at the right time? I always feel like their subjects are doing most of the work in their films. That’s because their subjects are natural performers: the Beales, the Stones, salesmen.
*. There are beautiful “found” moments in Gimme Shelter, poetic images that resonate: the bubble floating over the crowd, the Stones descending in their helicopter at Altamont like Hitler arriving at Nuremberg, the vague, shadowy figures appearing at the end like so many Night of the Living Dead zombies stumbling away from the tragedy.
*. This may have been the Stones in their prime, but I think they sounded better in concert twenty years later.
*. The shot of the couple in the front row – he enjoying himself, she crying – is one of the most disturbing in the film. They are there together, having completely different experiences.
*. This is often hailed as one of the best, if not the best, rock films ever made. And yet it doesn’t do a great job of capturing the Stones live. The camera only has eyes for Mick, with the briefest of glances toward the other band members. And at Altamont it doesn’t even capture Mick very well.
*. The time scheme is re-arranged to add drama. Hunter was killed early into “Under My Thumb.” The version you see is actually the version the band played after he had been killed, but then he is shown being killed later. I don’t approve of this. Such manipulation is disohnest in a documentary.
*. In retrospect, it all seems so spectacularly stupid. A show that big and the only security was going to be a bunch of drunken thugs, paid for with $500 worth of beer? The usual excuse given is naivete, but that’s just not convincing. Adults were involved here. What were they thinking?
*. In effect, it’s a movie that asks a simple question: A man gets killed and what do you think of that? Mick sure as hell isn’t saying anything, either while watching the footage later or while on stage. Note, with regard to the latter, how throughout the Altamont show he is only shown from behind, so that the viewer sees the event from the band’s point of view, with only the first few rows of the crowd visible. We never see Jagger’s face, and so can’t tell anything about how he is responding to the events aside from hearing his voice pleading for people to be cool.
*. The Maysles aren’t saying anything. Did they think Hunter’s death was significant? Or just a good, dramatic climax to end the movie on?
*. As for the rest of the people we meet, Charlie Woods is the most expressive of the Stones, but he doesn’t give much away. Jerry Garcia is told of how violent the Angels are getting and finds it “a bummer” (the Grateful Dead withdrew from the concert). Sonny Barger is defensive calling into the morning-after radio show, but seems clueless about what happened (“They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over.”).
*. So what do you think of that? Not “what does it mean?” The murder of Meredith Hunter didn’t mean anything. The Stones didn’t even know what had happened right in front of them, and the show (unlike the movie) went on (and they apparently played lights out). But what do you think of it? Are you the young man enjoying the show, or the young woman in tears? Or do you, the viewer, care? Was it a tragedy? Inevitable? The movie suggests something of tragic inevitability, with the Angels as forbidding messengers of death that recall the motorcyclists in Cocteau’s Orphée.
*. Made just a year after Performance, and it’s a very similar film. What happens when rock stars get into bed with gangsters? There they both are, on stage together, performing. There will be blood.
*. Vincent Canby: “it is not a concert film, like Woodstock. It is more like an end-of-the-world film, and I found it very depressing.” On this point, at least, I agree. Altamont took place only four months after Woodstock. It feels like a lot more than that.

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