As The Rolling Stones celebrate fifty years, I decided to revisit Albert and David Maysles’ film Gimme Shelter. It’s a more interesting film than I remember (I used to think it was lacking music, which it is, but that’s because performance is not the subject.) In many ways it’s a meta-documentary – we see the Stones watching the film being cut together, knowing that they know what we do, which is that four people died at the climactic Altamont concert. Somehow, they caught one of those deaths on camera, only twenty feet from the performers.
This film has been called the “anti-Woodstock,” the “nail in the coffin of the 60’s.” There’s not much peace and love on display – even placid shots of the crowds make the masses seem menacing, and the effects of drug abuse on display are terrifying. Early on, we see a triumphant Mick Jagger in full command of the crowd at Madison Square Garden. Late in the film, we witness the moment he realizes he has no control at Altamont; he stops singing, his expression goes blank, and he looks bewildered. Rock music and his powers have failed him.
Gimme Shelter is fertile ground for discussion, but it isn’t didactic. It barely suggests questions, let alone answers. Fascinating.