Archive for August, 2009


Just a Shot Away

Gimme_Shelter_posterGimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers documentary about the Rolling Stones and their free Altamont concert, is not your typical concert film, and I really got that having now seen it a second time last night (my first time seeing it on the big screen). It’s 1969 (the year after Woodstock), and the Stones want to put on a free concert in San Francisco, a Woodstock West. After several attempts to find a workable venue, the concert finally happens with disastrous results.

Marking the beginning of the end of the innocence and idealism of the Flower Power generation, Altamont would be seen as the antithesis of Woodstock. Bad drug trips, a general sense of unease and belligerence (someone hits Mick Jagger in the face as soon as he disembarks from the helicopter), and the Hell’s Angels acting as “crowd control” (not a good match for the audience demographic), you experience the downward spiral as it happens and know the conclusion is inevitable, that that one instance will set off a powder keg. As the chorus to the song “Gimme Shelter” says, “Rape, Murder, it’s just a shot away.”

“Gimme Shelter” becomes more than just a concert film (e.g., The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, etc.) not only in its tone but in the different timelines at play, which on first viewing can seem confusing. We go between a Stones concert at Madison Square Garden (to contrast with the lunacy of the Altamont experience), the preparations for and the actual happenings at Altamont, and the Stones watching the footage post-mortem. This timeline seems to be indicative of the documentary genre that the Maysles are most known for: cinema verite. With cinema verite, the camera simply rolls and catches moments as that happen with no talking heads or commentary needed. Moments that stayed with me included Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane unsuccessfully calming the audience (“Easy… easy…”) after her band mate has been knocked unconscious by a Hell’s Angel; another Hell’s Angel staring down an unaware Mick Jagger during the Stones’ set; and the stabbing, which is actually caught on film.

Last night’s audience for “Gimme Shelter” didn’t applaud at the end of the film. Their silence spoke for itself.