Bearing the reflexive chronology and confessional introspection of reality television, Gimme Shelter denies the triviality of celebrity exposé, humanizing The Rolling Stones by transforming them from performer to observer, allowing each member to recount fears and frustrations from their seats at the editing bay. The resulting oral history is “behind the scenes” without feeling sanitized, uncovering the ecstasy and exasperation of artistic endeavor in the face of human antipathy.
As hushed and solitary as a police interrogation, the introductory passages preface the dread of the Altamont Free Concert by observing the artists after the fact, capturing the confusion and frustration on Charlie Watts’ face as radio broadcasters and Hells Angels blame his band for the stabbing death of an intoxicated spectator. Unfurling footage from a jovial New York City gig plays silently in the background as ironic counterpoint, perverting the pleasures of a stellar performance into a point of embarrassment, as the participants contemplate the cataclysmic events that would occur within one week of their on-stage extravagance.
The grain of the handheld concert footage is as intimate and tightly-shot as a home movie, soaking up the glow of the stage lighting and reflecting pools of sweat, harnessing the energy beneath the clamor and feedback. Sheltered from portraits of the forthcoming chaos, the viewer is permitted to indulge in the expressiveness of the camera, swaying along with double-exposed snaps of Mick Jagger’s gentle, spiraling motions, kneeling in reverence to the spirituality of a communal, aural experience.
The Stones also bow to the transfigurative power of music, narcotically bobbing their heads and mouthing the words of “Wild Horses” from beneath wet lips, as the track takes its maiden spin on Muscle Shoals’ four-track mixing console. Glimpsing the impact of the ballad on its creators is incredibly stirring and inclusive, welcoming the audience in as participant instead of voyeur, eliminating the divide between artist and aficionado.
Exposing this vulnerability to their vast fan base would eventually become a curse for The Rolling Stones, despite best intentions. Their goodwill would be exploited and sacristy breached by the drug-addled attendees and self-serving security at Altamont, which was created as a West Coast-variation on Woodstock’s bountiful “good vibes,” but would devolve into a stateside manifestation of the Vietnam War.
Tensions seeped into the euphoric gathering from the moment the Stones disembarked from their chopper, as crowds rushed the dwarven, slapdash stage and bikers struck the interlopers with splintered pool cues. As hedonism and blind rage butted heads and opening acts got caught in the crossfire, Mick pleaded with the crowd to “cool out,” but his yearning fell on the deaf ears of drunken revelers. His vocals even began to emulate the anarchy, as words spewed out in a tortured wail and cymbals clashed behind in utter cacophony.
The conflict culminated during a somber rendition of “Under My Thumb,” as a teenager in a verdant leisure suit directed his pistol at the stage and sunk to the dirt beneath a sea of descending knife blows. As frames of the maelstrom are rewound and scrutinized in slow motion, Mick turns pale with indignation and the image freezes on the chilling vacuousness beneath his eyes. Through this haunting portrait of disillusionment, the Maysles Brothers encapsulated the anxieties of a culture incapable of detaching its ideology from the militaristic temperament of its government.
Gimme Shelter (20th Century Fox, 1970)
Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Photographed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Gary Weis