David (left) and Albert Maysles with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones
GIMME SHELTER A
USA (91 mi) 1970 d: Albert and David Maysles co-director: Charlotte Zwerin Official website
One of the seminal works of documentary filmmaking, which is especially significant given the unforeseen circumstances of what the Maysles brothers were shooting, which was ostensibly a feel-good recording of the end of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour, where the visceral viewpoint of the onstage camera provides a sense of immediacy that would otherwise not be there, where it’s as if the viewer was given a backstage pass and could watch from the wings of the theater. While there’s a goofy opening that resembles the silliness of HELP! (1965), we are immediately transported to the Madison Square Garden stage in New York for a firsthand look at the Rolling Stones in performance during their heyday when guitarist Mick Taylor (who eventually left the band in 1974) joined the band, producing what may have been their best work. In ’68 they released Beggar’s Banquet, followed by Let it Bleed a year later (released one day before the Altamont concert), Sticky Fingers in 1971 and Exile on Main Street in 1972, still among the greatest rock albums ever released, so this live footage features the group when they still looked energetic and youthful and were at the peak of their powers. Albert Maysles (who recently died March 5, 2015) always had an interest in photography, but got a Masters of Arts degree from Boston University, teaching psychology for three years before switching to film, making a trip to Russia in the mid 50’s with his brother presumably to photograph a mental hospital, which became the subject of their first film. Albert was one of the early proponents of the portability and fluidity of hand-held cameras in cinéma vérité, though he preferred to call it direct cinema, an observational fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing events as they unfolded in real time without narration or other cinematic enhancements, allowing the images to speak for themselves. His brother David (who died earlier in 1987) specialized in portable recording equipment, where the camera and sound equipment could be moved independently of one another while still capturing synchronized sound. Both became pioneers in American film, having an influence of generations of filmmakers to follow, notably Barbara Kopple (who worked as an apprentice on the film), Harmony Korine, Paul Greengrass, Christopher Nolan, Kirby Dick, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to name a few, where even an unheralded, pre-STAR WARS (1977) George Lucas is credited as a cameraman on this film, though none of what he shot was ultimately used, while it was also one of legendary sound editor Walter Murch’s first assignments as well. Curiously, Frederick Wiseman may be the most prolific advocate of a similar style, but dislikes the term direct cinema. Perhaps the biggest difference between the filmmakers (who apparently were not friends) is their philosophical approach, where Wiseman is more meditative, making the camera completely invisible, using fewer edits, making longer films, while not altering the reality of what’s being filmed through slow motion or camera filters, all designed to enhance the personal experience. Other filmmakers adapting similar techniques at the same time were Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa (1959), John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968), Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), and Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970, where this film is in good company. Of interest, Haskell Wexler was the initial choice of the Rolling Stones to shoot this film, but he declined, recommending the Maysles brothers instead. The film is in stark contrast to the Marxist exploitation film of Jean-Luc Godard that similarly made use of the Rolling Stones in SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (1968), though mostly through studio outtake rehearsal footage, becoming Godard’s examination of the 60’s counterculture through leftist politics.
Shot on 16mm film and blown up to 35mm, GIMME SHELTER has become symbolic of a 60’s generation’s lost innocence, where good-intentioned aspirations have rarely been so thoroughly and demoralizingly crushed, where one often associates this film with an end of an era, as it’s really a film of two halves, where the first half is optimistically entertaining, relying upon the theatrics of Mick Jagger as a consummate performer, while the second half moves to a December 6, 1969 free concert originally scheduled in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the site of many previous free concerts by local Bay area bands, that was moved at the last minute 60 miles East to the Altamont Speedway to accommodate 300,000 people. As the Stones missed out on Woodstock in August, 1969, just a few months earlier, this was their opportunity to reward their fans, but the experience quickly sours, where crowds of people attempt to squeeze into a tiny space in front of the stage, guarded, mysteriously enough, by the Hell’s Angels biker gang, who sat on the stage drinking beer during the concert and pulverized anyone who made an attempt to reach the stage. There were violent incidents throughout the concert where the Angels resorted to sawed-off pool cues and motorcycle chains to beat up people, even knocking out Marty Balin, the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane when he tried to intervene, but when the Stones took the stage, all hell broke loose, as it was utter mayhem, likely enhanced by a combination of drugs and alcohol, where there were reportedly batches of bad LSD in circulation, but let’s face it, what this notorious biker gang does for kicks is beat people up, avidly targeting hippies and flower children, despising everything that they stood for, seeing them more as children of privilege, while they are basically working class stiffs who rob and beat up college kids for kicks. Instead of the elevated level of euphoria that we see on display in New York, Altamont is an unmitigated disaster, where the band itself has no control over the situation where fights continuously break out, some more violent than others, resulting in the stabbing death of a young black man at the hands of a Hell’s Angel during the performance. While no one could really anticipate the security fuck up that was Altamont, or just how out of control it became, but viewing the situation today, it’s easy to see how Jagger or any of the Stones could have been killed, as literally anything could have happened. Because of this deterioration of security, fear is a constant presence, where the stage is surrounded by a biker gang that was attacking people throughout the concert and was capable of inflicting serious damage to anyone. The helplessness of the Stones to control their own audience becomes an unintended focus of the film, evolving into something of a horror show with dread and panic plastered on the faces in the crowd, playing into the mythology of much of their own incendiary lyrics about “My name is called disturbance” and “the time is right for Revolution” in “Street Fighting Man,” while also expressing “Sympathy for the Devil.” This change of tone into a sense of doom is a profound occurrence where a gang of hellraisers are actually allowed to raise hell during an otherwise peaceful and festive outdoor concert where people came in droves to enjoy the music. According to reports afterwards, two other deaths occurred from a hit-and-run car accident while a fourth person drowned in an irrigation ditch. Four births were also recorded, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned, and there was extensive property damage, while 850 people were reportedly injured.
The idea for the concert originated with the San Francisco based rock band the Jefferson Airplane, who had already experienced dozens of free concerts in the sprawling grounds of the city’s Golden Gate Park. They discussed the idea of staging a free concert with the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones, who at that time rivalled the Beatles for the biggest name rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, where they wanted the Stones to experience the San Francisco vibes, featuring bands playing legendary live performances at the infamous Fillmore Theater, calling the event the equivalent of a “Woodstock West.” Due to the reality of bands constantly being on the road, plans were never finalized as the various participants never sat down in the same room together, so instead ideas were advanced by people connected to them in some capacity, all coming together very quickly in the end where bands actually flew in at the last moment. Woodstock organizer Michael Lang was behind this event along with Sam Cutler and Rock Scully, the respective Stones and Grateful Dead road managers, meeting only in the last week to help finalize the last minute details, where a change of venue occurred literally twenty hours before the planned event. Unlike Woodstock, which was the result of months of careful planning by a team of well-funded organizers, Altamont was largely an improvised affair where it all came together in a mad rush at the last minute with next to no planning, where it was all seen as an act of desperation according to Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner, “There was no way to control it, no supervision or order,” while lead singer Grace Slick wrote in her biography, “The vibes were bad. Something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive and unsure day. I had expected the loving vibes of Woodstock but that wasn't coming at me. This was a whole different thing.” Even before night fell and the Stones made their appearance, this wasn’t the same bucolic free spiritedness shown at Woodstock, where people were literally communing with nature while enjoying wall to wall music. Altamont is out in the middle of nowhere, barren lands where there’s not a tree to be seen anywhere stretching for miles, as instead it’s a picture of desolation and emptiness, with near non-existent toilet facilities, where kids were crammed into a small valley between low lying hills, where one of the problems from the outset was the poor low fidelity sound system that barely reached most of the people who were sitting a great distance away, where only a few were jammed near the stage fending off a biker gang. There was certainly nothing of the carefree spirit of Woodstock, where perhaps it was the poor quality of drugs going around but many more people seemed to be having “bad trips.” The real unforeseen factor, the elephant in the room, was the Hell’s Angels. But this was not unprecedented. One should recall (it’s never mentioned in the film) that earlier that summer Brian Jones, the Rolling Stone’s co-founder and original lead guitarist, was discovered drowned on July 5, 1969, where three days later the Stones gave a free concert in his memory in London’s Hyde Park for several hundred thousand people. The English Hell’s Angels (they are a worldwide organization) volunteered to be an “Honor Guard,” where Stanley Goldstein, friend and associate of the Maysles reported, “It was a lovely, peaceful day. So it seemed natural to the Stones’ crew to ask them to perform that same or a similar function at the concert culminating the Stones’ U.S. tour.” It also wasn’t unusual to see the Angels at rock shows in the Bay area, especially outdoor events, where they had a predilection for not just beer drinking, but experimental drug use of all kinds, so it typically brought them in close proximity to various elements of 60’s counterculture, where the Grateful Dead, for instance, apparently had no problem with them. Unknown to many, however, the Angels had recently attacked an antiwar march from Berkeley just as it crossed the border into Oakland, their own protected turf, beating many heads in the process. Nonetheless, Sam Cutler, the Stones’ manager, asked the Dead’s Rock Scully to extend the invitation, where according to Goldstein, “A meeting was arranged at which it was agreed that the Angels would have an area set aside for them,” where they were asked to serve as “Honor Guard,” just as they were accustomed to providing at Bay area rock concerts, where it was understood “They would receive $500 worth of beer as a gratuity.” With this agreement, however, many professional security people, as were seen in New York, wanted no part of Altamont.
Charlotte Zwerin is listed as a co-director in this film, as she was in an earlier Maysles film SALESMAN (1968), but also Meet Marlon Brando (1966) where she is uncredited. Opening with concert footage of the Stones in New York, the film quickly cuts behind the scenes, where it was Zwerin’s idea to bring the Rolling Stones into the editing room to watch footage of the Altamont concert, where the camera could move between what they’re watching on editing screens to the actual event itself, providing a kind of self analysis of the tragedy. In addition, we hear the Stones listening to comments from a call-in radio show describing various accounts of the event, including an angry Sonny Barger, the leader of the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels. These sequences are interspersed between concert footage at Madison Square Garden, providing a kind of time alteration, keeping the viewer off balance, setting the scene for what’s to come. Without the Altamont tragedy, this would be a rather straightforward music documentary about a rock band at the height of their power. Because a death and/or murder occurred on their watch, it adds a certain vulnerability and naiveté to otherwise impenetrable images of rock stardom, where their obvious discomfort is a bitter contrast to the opening scenes onstage that are full of bluster and swagger, where their egos and extreme arrogance are on display, where Jagger has often been compared to preening like a peacock due to the way he struts his stuff onstage and shows off his “plumage,” like a bird that wants to attract attention during mating season, Street Fighting Man. The Rolling Stones Live 1969 (Full Song) YouTube (3:30), a song actually banned by several radio stations in Chicago for fear it could incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But even Jagger grows tired of himself painfully watching an earlier press conference, calling his somewhat cocky responses “Rubbish.” But this is followed by one of the most exquisite sequences in the film, where the Maysles use tinted filters, oversaturated colors, slow-mo, and superimposed imagery for “Love in Vain” The Rolling Stones - Love In Vain '69 YouTube (4:34), adding a dreamlike quality, while also blending in a sensational performance by Ike and Tina Turner (unfortunately interrupted and condensed) singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” I've Been Loving You Too Long (Gimme Shelter 1970 ... YouTube (3:27), where Tina does to the microphone what guys can only dream of, where the beauty of this normally 8-minute showpiece is the sexual innuendo and slow build up to an orgiastic release. Jagger is predictably flippant afterwards, adding “It’s nice to have a chick occasionally.” Adding to this sense of disorientation is footage of power attorney Melvin Belli, interestingly played by Brian Cox in David Fincher’s ZODIAC (2007), as the first Zodiac murder occurred October 11,1969, with Belli receiving a letter from the Zodiac killer postmarked December 20, 1969, where a serial killer on the loose is actually a backdrop to these events, where Belli is seen on several occasions trying to work out a new concert site location, seen frantically negotiating with Dick Carter, owner of the Altamont Speedway. The Stones also visit the famed Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama for three days in December to record “Brown Sugar,” where they’re also seen casually listening to a playback of “Wild Horses” Rolling Stones - Wild Horses - YouTube (3:01) where the camera lingers on each member of the band throughout the song, along with studio record producer Jim Dickinson, with Jagger drinking J & B Scotch from the bottle, giving himself a hand afterwards. Absent is any hint of smoking pot, which was a staple for musicians of this era. However, the ease of this moment and the poignancy of the lyric reveals a fleeting tranquility, as little did they know what lay ahead of them in just a few days, or that legal struggles with their manager would keep this music on the shelf for another two years until the album’s eventual release in 1971. The New York concert footage playing throughout is electric, featuring superb camerawork, providing a continual jolt of energy, but the way the events unfold offer a sense of foreboding and suggest an impending train wreck lies ahead, giving the film an eerie shape, as if one shouldn’t trust the worshipping throngs who can’t get enough of this rock stage phenomenon.
It’s nearly an hour into the film before we see our first images of Altamont, night shots of the crew setting up the stage as early arrivals sit around large bonfires passing around jugs of wine, drinking beer, or smoking dope. By morning, there are already lines of cars parked along the side of the road, which snakes around the dirt hills for miles on end, as hordes of people carrying their gear are forced to walk the rest of the way, many forgetting where they left their cars afterwards. Despite the wintry chill in the air, people huddle under blankets to a stench of marijuana that blankets the festivities, where Santana and the Flying Burrito Brothers played while the Angels were repeatedly seen beating several naked people to the ground, also a couple of people taking their pictures, smashing their cameras, removing the film, while stomping them with pool sticks for good measure. Before Santana could begin their next song, they were interrupted by one of the Angels running across the stage to beat someone up, creating a scene of such mayhem that people could only stare in disbelief. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, whose first performance was at Woodstock, played a set that was not shown in the film. By the time the Jefferson Airplane took the stage, a crowd of standing people surrounded the stage, where there was a continual disturbance just below the stage between the Hell’s Angels and members of the audience, where lead singer Marty Balin was knocked out by a punch from one of the Angels when he tried to intercede, where one of the Angels even grabbed the mike afterwards but was booed off the stage, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE LIVE ALTAMONT 1969 YouTube (6:50). When the Grateful Dead arrived by helicopter, told of the ensuing violence taking place, they turned around and went home, refusing to play, so there was a long lull before the Stones played, apparently waiting until nightfall, but also for bass player Bill Wyman to show up, as he missed the earlier helicopter. In an ominous note, someone punched Mick Jagger in the face just after he stepped off the helicopter. During this downtime, in one of the more stunning displays of raw power, the Angels drove straight through the massive crowd in a line of motorcycles clearing a path headed for the front of the stage, literally pushing their way through, reinforcing their positions, taking charge of the stage, which they commanded like a crazed and demented military operation throughout the entire Stones show, which was constantly interrupted by a series of violent eruptions, ROLLING STONES - Sympathy For The Devil (Live 1969) HD YouTube (6:36), though at one point in the midst of the mayhem a dog can be seen inexplicably sauntering across the stage. Meek protestations from Jagger on the mike hoping everyone would just “Cool out,”, sounding a bit like Rodney King asking if we couldn’t just “get along,” had no effect, as it was clear who was in charge throughout, and it wasn’t the musicians. The real show was being played out by the Angels. By the time the Stones began playing “Under My Thumb” Rolling Stones Under My Thumb YouTube (4:32), the musicians were besieged by a wall of surrounding Angels as more violence broke out just in front of the stage, where a 21-year old Hell’s Angel named Alan Passaro (tried and eventually acquitted on grounds of self defense) repeatedly stabbed Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old art student from Berkeley, a black man seen in a green suit flashing a gun in his left hand, killing him just 20-feet in front of the stage. Most in the crowd, including the Stones, were unaware of what just occurred, where the Stones kept playing until the end, concluding a chilly evening with a feeling of sinister menace in the air. It was only sometime later that the Stones were able to view the footage in the Maysles’ editing rooms, still in a state of shocked disbelief, dazed by what they see, unable to comprehend how it had all gone so wrong so fast, and what they had to do with it. In a stunning reversal of fortune, the euphoric optimism from the opening scenes hurdles off the track at an abandoned, broken down speedway that no one had ever heard of anyway (closing for good in 2008), like the forgotten dreams and ideals of youth, as the promised cultural changes of the 60’s come to a thudding halt, as the war in Vietnam will languish on, Nixon will be re-elected, the FBI will wipe out the Black Panthers, and racial progress remains an elusive dream, despite increased awareness and education. The clashing of two 60’s counterculture groups, Hell’s Angels and hippies, provides a stark demonstration of basic human differences that philosophically share little in common, where universal love is not about to break out in your neighborhood anytime soon, instead what transpires more closely resembles John Milton’s revelations from Paradise Lost: “Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.”
At the time of the film’s release, the country’s most powerful critics disparaged it, claiming it was exploitive, even staged, especially since it was partly financed by the Stones themselves, believing the film was designed to get them off the hook and restore their damaged reputations, where according to Peter Becker, director of the Criterion Collection, “[The New Yorker’s] Pauline Kael and [the New York Times’] Vincent Canby led the charge against ‘Gimme Shelter’ as an opportunistic snuff film, essentially saying that the filmmakers were complicit in the murder by having photographed it and subsequently profited from its theatrical release.” When viewed from today, this may represent a kind of mob mentality, ganging up after a disaster gone wrong and kicking people while they are down. The film tells a larger story, however, as it’s not about who profits from the making of a Maysles film, as it’s more about the reflective nature of the film itself, where stylistically it adheres to their standards and is a beacon of independent filmmaking. Much of the negativity surrounding Altamont originated not by those who were there, as most were nowhere near the front to see what happened, but from a 15-page layout in Rolling Stone magazine entitled The Rolling Stones Disaster At Altamont: Let It Bleed, January 21, 1970, The Rolling Stones Disaster At Altamont | Rolling Stone, offering a perspective from as many as ten different writers, becoming the ultimate authority on the event, which just like in the days of the Wild West immediately created a myth surrounding this event, redefining Altamont as the “anti-Woodstock,” giving the one-day concert apocalyptic overtones, suggesting something along the lines of a massacre took place, often blaming the disastrous outcome on the filmmakers shooting the movie. But were it not for the film, viewers would not have the proper context for what they can see for themselves, drawing their own conclusions, as the film points no fingers and remains non-judgmental. Certainly the Stones for their part come off a bit dumfounded, even after the passing of time, where they remain in a state of shock from what transpired. But even as events spiraled out of control, the cameras were continually pointed on them, where they were the main attraction, the stars that drew the hordes of people, like spiritual believers on a pilgrimage searching for their salvation. Ironically that remains a prevalent theme of the film even after such a tragedy, the naivety of youth in search of new meanings and understandings, but there are deeper levels of significance, where the entire 60’s counterculture is somehow stained and tainted by this event, where we are all implicated. There is no question that the events onscreen are beautifully filmed, where the editing style only implicates the Stones in the perceived destruction of their own implied coronation, for which they have no answers. Disaster strikes and more often than not, there are never really any comprehensible answers. Hope springs eternal, but the reality is we rarely live up to the expectations we set for ourselves. What’s perhaps most intriguing is seeing the Stones offstage in such a vulnerable position, where they are no longer rock stars, but ordinary people struggling to find their own answers, and for the most part coming up short. Rock stars were the gods of the era, as the counterculture was consumed by their everpresent impact, continually elevating their stature during a time when musicians had not yet been reduced to MTV commodities, yet there was always an associative effect that was left unspoken, namely the self-destructive damage done by these stars to themselves, serving as horrible role models, as so many died tragic early deaths, like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Sid Vicious, Ian Curtis, Mike Bloomfield, Jerry Garcia, and the list goes on. While idolizing the Stones as performers, unlike other music documentaries, this one dares to look below the surface at their own culpability, where their devlish bad boy image becomes blurred with reality, where they actually played a part in shaping 60’s history, perhaps unwittingly, but that’s the way life unfolds, as it’s rarely the way we plan it. Sure, the Stones could have done more, like raise money for the kid’s family, or draw attention to youth violence, where they might have taken more responsibility. But they didn’t. And that’s the empty reality we’re left with. There’s a sinking feeling for viewers at the conclusion of the film, an overriding sense of bewilderment and exasperation, where in the midst of an anticipated celebration the film documents a horrible tragedy gone wrong, a lamentable catastrophe that makes no sense, yet we almost inadvertently witnessed it happening before our eyes. From the song “Wild Horses,” we are left with the haunting phrase,“Faith has been broken, tears must be cried.”
On a personal note, for those who might be curious, yes I was at Altamont as a young teenager sitting a good ways back away from the stage, where I spent most of the day rolling joints for the continuously swelling crowd. From where we sat, the sound was terrible, and we couldn’t understand why musical groups kept stopping in the middle of their performances or why people continued to storm the stage. We grew very tired of those continual stoppages, but even from where we sat, the entire crowd was surrounded by a wall of Angel’s motorcycles, where they would fly into a rage if anybody so much as touched one of their precious bikes. Having spent plenty of time living in and moving around California, I had the good fortune to receive plenty of welcoming hospitality from a few Hell’s Angels, many of whom gave us rides or allowed us to crash in their homes, where my own personal experience is once you get these guys away from their gangs, they’re just guys. That’s also reflective of the times.
The Documentary Blog » Pauline Kael vs. Gimme Shelter Jay C, September 10, 2007
This past weekend I was flipping through the book ‘Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary’ by Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins, and I came across an interesting Pauline Kael review of the Maysles film ‘Gimme Shelter’. I guess she wasn’t a big fan of the film, even going as far as to suggest that David & Albert Maysles and co-director/editor Charlotte Zwerin are indirectly responsible for the death of the young black man at the infamous Altamont concert. Below is the original review as written by Kael, and following it is the written response by the filmmakers, which ultimately was never published in the New York Times. It’s a pretty interesting read and good fodder for discussion on the elements of fact and fiction in documentary filmmaking. Too bad some of the ‘facts’ within her own article turned out to be fiction.
How does one review this picture? It’s like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination or Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. This movie is into complications and sleight-of-hand beyond Pirandello, since the filmed death at Altamont – although, of course, unexpected – was part of a cinema-verité spectacular. The free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed, and the three hundred thousand people who attended it were the unpaid cast of thousands. The violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema-verité jackpot.
If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone? Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema? The Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934 was architecturally designed so that Leni Riefenstahl could get the great footage that resulted in Triumph of the Will; in order to shoot A Time for Burning, William C. Jersey instigated a racial confrontation that split an Omaha church; the Maysles brothers recruited Paul Brennan, who was in the roofing and siding business, to play a bible salesman for the ‘direct cinema’ Salesman. It is said to be a ‘law’ that the fact of observation alters the phenomenon that is observed – but how can one prove it? More likely, observation sometimes alters the phenomenon and sometimes doesn’t…there is no reason to believe that the freaked-out people in Gimme Shelter paid much attention to the camera crews, but would the event itself have taken place without those crews? With modern documentarians, as with many TV news cameramen, it’s impossible to draw a clear line between catching actual events and arranging events to be caught; a documentarian may ask people to re-enact events, while a TV journalist may argue that it was only by precipitating events that he was able to clarify issues for the public – that is, that he needed to fake a little, but for justifiable reasons. There are no simple ethical standards to apply, and, because the situations are so fluid and variable, one has to be fairly knowledgeable not to get suckered into reacting to motion-picture footage that appears to be documentary as if it were the simple truth.
A cinema-verité sham that appeals to an audience by showing it what it wants to believe may be taken as corroboration of its beliefs, and as an illumination. Would audiences react to the Arthur Miller-Eugene O’Neill overtones of Salesman the same way if they understood how much of it was set up and that the principals are play acting? One should be alert to the questionable ethics in Gimme Shelter, to what is designed not to reveal the situation but to conceal certain elements of that situation. Gimme Shelter plays the game of trying to mythologize the event (Altamont) and to clear the participants (The Rolling Stones and the filmmakers) of any cognizance of how it came about.
When Mick Jagger is seen in Gimme Shelter pensively looking at the Altamont footage – run for him by the Maysles brothers – and wondering how it all happened, this is disingenuous movie-making. One wants to say: Drop the Miss Innocence act and tell us the straight story of the background to the events. What isn’t explained is that, four months after Woodstock, Stone Promotions asked the Maysles brothers to shoot the Stones at Madison Square Gardens. The Maysles brothers had done a film on an American tour by The Beatles, and Albert Maysles had shot part of Monterey Pop. When, as a climax to their American tour, the Stones decided on a filmed free concert in the San Francisco area, the Maysles brothers made a deal with them to film it and rounded up a large crew. Melvin Belli’s bordello-style law office and his negotiations for a concert site are in the film, but it isn’t explained that Porter Bibb, the producer of Salesman, was the person who brought in Belli, or that Bibb became involved in producing the concert in Altamont in order to produce the Maysles film. The sequence in Belli’s office omits the detail that the concert had to be hurriedly moved to Altamont because the owners of the previously scheduled site wanted distribution rights of the film. Gimme Shelter has been shaped so as to whitewash the Rolling Stones and the film-makers for the thoughtless, careless way the concert was arranged, and especially for the cut-rate approach to keeping order. The Hell’s Angels, known for their violence, but cheap and photogenic, were hired as guards for five hundred dollars’ worth of beer. This took less time and trouble than arranging for unarmed marshals, and the Hell’s Angels must have seemed the appropriate guards for Their Satanic Majesties, the Stones. In the film, the primary concern of the Angels appears to be to keep the stage clear and guard the Stones.
When the self-centered, mercenary movie queen of Singin’ in the Rain talked about bringing joy into the humdrum lives of the public, we laughed. Should we also laugh at Melvin Belli’s talk in Gimme Shelter about a ‘free concert’ for ‘the people’ and at the talk about the Stone’s not wanting money when the concert is being shot for Gimme Shelter and The Rolling Stones and the Maysles brothers divide the profits from the picture? One of the jokes of cinema verité is that practically the only way to attract an audience is to use big stars, but since big stars cooperate only if they get financial – and generally, artistic – control of the film, the cinema-verité techniques are used to give the look of ‘caught’ footage to the image the stars are selling.
This film has caught (Mick Jagger’s) feral intensity as a performer (which, oddly, Godard never captured in One Plus One, maybe because he dealt with a rehearsal-recording session, without an audience). It has also captured his teasing, taunting relationship to the audience: he can finish a frenzied number and say to the audience, ‘You don’t want my trousers to fall down now, do you?’ His toughness is itself provocative, and since rock performers are accepted by the young as their own spokesmen, the conventional barriers between performers and audience have been pushed over. From the star of Gimme Shelter, our knowledge of the horror to come makes us see The Rolling Stones’ numbers not as we might in an ordinary festival film but as the preparations for, and the possible cause of, disaster. We begin to suspect that Mick Jagger’s musical style leads to violence, as he himself suggests in a naïve and dissociated way when he complains – somewhat pettishly, but with a flicker of pride – to the crowd that there seems to be some trouble every time he starts to sing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. He may not fully understand the response he works for and gets.
The film has a very disturbing pathos, because everybody seems so helpless. Many of the people at Altamont are blank or frightened but are in thrall to the music, or perhaps just to being there; some twitch and jerk to the beat in an apocalyptic parody of dancing; others strip, or crawl on the heads of the crowd; and we can see tormented tripper’s faces, close to the stage, near the angry Angels. When Grace Slick and then Mick Jagger appeal to the audience to cool it, to ‘keep your bodies off each other unless you intend to love,’ and to ‘get yourselves together’, they are saying all they know how to say, but the situation is way past that. They don’t seem to connect what they’re into with the results. Mick Jagger symbolizes the rejection of the values that he then appeals to. Asking stoned and freaked out people to control themselves is pathetic, and since the most dangerous violence is obviously from the Hell’s Angels, who are trying to keep their idea of order by stomping dazed, bewildered kids, Jagger’s saying ‘Brothers and sisters, why are we fighting?’ is pitifully beside the point. Musically Jagger has no way to cool it because his orgiastic kind of music has only one way to go – higher, until everyone is knocked out.
Mick Jagger’s performing style is a form of aggression not just against the straight world but against his own young audience, and this appeals to them, because it proves to them that he hasn’t sold out and gone soft. But when all this aggression is released, who can handle it? The violence he provokes is well known: fans have pulled him off a platform, thrown a chair at him. He’s greeted with a punch in the face when he arrives at Altamont. What the film doesn’t deal with is the fact that Jagger attracts this volatile audience, that he magnetizes disintegrating people. This is, of course, an ingredient of the whole rock scene, but it is seen at its most extreme in the San Francisco-Berkeley audience that gathers for The Rolling Stones at Altamont. Everyone – the people who came and the people who planned it – must have wanted a big Dionysian freak-out. The movie includes smiling talk about San Francisco as the place for the concert, and we all understand that it’s the place for the concert because it’s the farthest out place; it’s the mother city of the drug culture. It’s where things are already wildly out of control. The film shows part of what happened when Marty Balin, of the Jefferson Airplane, jumped off the stage to stop the Angles from beating a black man and was himself punched unconscious. After that, according to reporters, no one tried to stop the Angels from beating the crazed girls and boys who climbed onstage or didn’t follow instructions; they were hit with leaded pool cues and with fists while the show went on and the three dozen cameramen and soundmen went on working. There were four deaths at Altamont, and a cameraman caught one. You see the Angel’s knife flashing high in the air before he stabs a black boy, who has a gun in his hand. You see it at normal speed, see it again slowed down, and then in a frozen frame.
It’s impossible to say how much movie-making itself is responsible for those consequences, but it is a factor, and with the commercial success of this kind of film it’s going to be a bigger factor. Antonioni dickered with black groups to find out what actions they were planning, so that he could include some confrontations in Zabriskie Point. MGM’s lawyers must have taken a dim view of this. A smaller company, with much more to gain and little to lose, might have encouraged him. Movie studios are closing, but, increasingly, public events are designed to take place on what are essentially movie stages. And with movie-production money getting tight, provoked events can be a cheap source of spectacles. The accidents that happen may be more acceptable to audiences than the choreographed battles of older directors, since for those who grew up with TV careful staging can look arch and stale. It doesn’t look so fraudulent if a director excites people to commit violent acts on camera, and the event becomes free publicity for the film. The public will want to see the result, so there is big money to deodorize everyone concerned. What we’re getting in the movies is ‘total theatre’. Altamont, in Gimme Shelter, is like a Roman circus, with a difference: the audience and the victims are indistinguishable.
Source: New Yorker, 19 December 1970 (via: Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary)
A Response to Pauline Kael
by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
The directors would like to point out the following errors in Pauline Kael’s review of Gimme Shelter, a film about the Rolling Stones tour of the United States which ended with a free concert at Altamont, where a young, black man was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels.
Miss Kael seems to be implying that we, as filmmakers, are responsible for the events we film by suggesting that we set them up or helped to stage them. In referring to our previous film, Salesman, Miss Kael says “the Maysles brothers recruited Paul Brennan, who was in the roof-and-siding business, to play a Bible salesman.” Paul Brennan had been selling Bibles for eight years prior to the making of our film and was selling Bibles when we met him. No actors were used in Salesman. The men were asked to simply go on doing what they normally did while we filmed.
This misstatement of fact is used in a paragraph which associates us with a number of other filmmakers who Miss Kael implies filmed staged events in such a way that they would appear to be a documentary. At the top of the list is Leni Riefenstahl, who was hired by Hitler to film the Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg in 1934. These filmmakers may or may not have manufactured events for the cinema. We did not.
Miss Kael further implies that the makers of Gimme Shelter are responsible for what happened at Altamont (presumably the killing). She does not make the direct statement that the filmmakers arranged the events at Altamont, but she discusses the film in the following ways: “when facts are manufactured for the cinema,” “if events are created to be photographed,” “arranging events to be caught,” “it doesn’t look so fraudulent if a director excites people to commit violent acts on camera.” She goes on to suggest that the filmmakers were involved in producing the concert and consequently involved in hiring the Hell’s Angels as security guards.
The facts are: We were involved in producing a film of the Rolling Stones’ tour of the United States, not in producing concerts. To the best of our knowledge, the free concert was produced by Rock Scully, Sam Cutler and Mike Lang with the help of the people from the Grateful Dead organization and many volunteers from the San Francisco area.
We did not produce the event. It’s our understanding that the Rolling Stones agreed to play for nothing and to pay some of the costs of production. The above mentioned producers of the concert said they did not hire the Angels. The Angels told the filmmakers that they were not hired. Since we could not establish that they were hired, we did not say so in the film.
Miss Kael calls the film a whitewash of the Stones and a cinema verité sham. If that is the case, then how can it also be the film which provides the grounds for Miss Kael’s discussion of the deeply ambiguous nature of the Stones’ appeal? All the evidence she uses in her analysis of their disturbing relationship to their audience is evidence supplied by the film, by the structure of the film which tries to render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger’s double self, of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even the pathos of his final powerlessness. These are the filmmakers’ insights and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery. Rather than giving the audience what it wants to believe, the film forces the audience to see things as they are.
We don’t know where Miss Kael got her facts. We do know that her researcher phoned Paul Brennan, one of the Bible salesmen, and told him that The New Yorker was interested in doing an article about him. He made it quite clear to her that he was a Bible salesman and not a roof-and-siding salesman when we made the film about him. Aside from his own statement, this could easily have been checked out by contacting his employers, the Mid-American Bible Company. Miss Kael’s researcher also contacted Porter Bibb (who is identified in the review as the producer of Salesman when in fact he had nothing to do with producing Salesman) and asked him how much the Maysles had made on Gimme Shelter. When Mr. Bibb suggested that she call the Maysles, she replied that she didn’t think the Maysles would want to talk to her.
We don’t know why she would feel that way since she had called and we had talked to her. She asked us if the free concert had been staged and lighted to be photographed and we told her that it had not. In her review, Miss Kael states that “the free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed.”
In fact, the filmmakers were not consulted and had no control over the staging or the lighting at Altamont. All of the cameramen will verify that the lighting was poor and totally unpredictable.
These errors are crucial to her argument that Gimme Shelter is a cinema verité sham and a whitewash of the Rolling Stones. Miss Kael’s argument is not supported by the facts. It can only be supported by her errors.