There is something to be said about timing when considering the merit of a documentary. To claim that the Maysles brothers were in the right place at the right moment in history when shooting the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour would undoubtedly be true, but it would also belie the potency of their camera to dissect both the band and the cultural movement they were filming. There are very few gratuitous shots in GIMME SHELTER, and contrary to what one may find in other rock documentaries, concert footage is never used as filler or a mere treat for the viewer. Rather, the live performances included here are essential to the Maysles brothers’ deconstruction of rock and roll in the sixties. They are masterfully interwoven throughout the film to expose the movement’s charisma, contradictions and violent undercurrents, which inevitably converge into disaster.
The opening scenes of GIMME SHELTER establish the tenuous balance of light and dark energy ever-present in the film. This is in large part due to fantastic editing, which arguably shapes the film’s integrity more than any other cinematic technique. We first see Mick Jagger, wrapped in a blanket, and Charlie Watts, a rock and roll Uncle Sam, messing around on a highway outside New York, with Watts riding a donkey. It is a moment of light-hearted fun between brazen twenty-something-year-olds, and for an instant the Maysles brothers deceive the viewer into thinking that the film is going to indulge fantasies of the zany adventures the substance-addled Rolling Stones find themselves in. A high-energy performance of one of the Stones’ biggest hits, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” follows, and the image of the Rolling Stones as rock legends continues. Admittedly, the camera seems to have as much difficulty turning away from Jagger as the audience does: his charisma is engrossing, to the point of obsession. This is certainly something the Maysles brothers would have been aware of while filming the Stones’ concert tour.
It is in the sequence succeeding “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that the tone of the film drastically shifts. We witness the Stones in a studio, reviewing the footage we’ve just seen on a comically small television. The radio comes on, and the station DJ launches into a breaking story about the free Rolling Stones concert fiasco at the Altamont Speedway. A total of four people died, with one man being stabbed to death by a member of Hell’s Angels, the motorcycle gang hired as security for the concert. As one of the bikers explains his side of the story via phone call to the radio station, we begin to perceive the Rolling Stones in a new light. The pensive expressions on the faces of Jagger and Watts in particular imply a mild sense of guilt in their contrast to the playful attitudes previously demonstrated. For all the bravado the Stones display on the stage, the reality of being a street fighting man is quite sobering, especially when it leads to murder.
GIMME SHELTER plays with this question of whether the Rolling Stones were complicit in the violence that erupted, or at least, naïve enough to think it could never have happened. The Maysles brothers’ choice to jump to footage of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” immediately after the radio segment is brilliant in its irony, particularly when Jagger starts ad-libbing that he “ain’t gonna give you no bullshit” or “no lies.” He plays the straight shooter opposing the deceptive admen on the radio and television, but the truth is far from this self-characterization. The Stones, whether they were conscious of it or not, were selling an idea–the idea of rock and roll. Fans worshipped Jagger in particular for his sexual energy, but the rest of the Stones were also symbols of the sex, drugs and party lifestyle so typically associated with rock stars.
Naturally, they couldn’t help but be influenced by the credos of the social movement taking place during the sixties, even if these credos stood in direct contrast to other views espoused by them. In a telling press conference following “Satisfaction,” Jagger brashly claims that hosting a large free concert “sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave at nice gatherings.” The arrogant finality in his voice leaves no doubt that he believes what he is saying, but nevertheless, this statement is incongruous with the general attitude of rebellion inherent in rock and roll. Though Mick Jagger comes across as rather foolish, the intention is not to embarrass the Rolling Stones or deride them for their naïveté. Instead, the directors of GIMME SHELTER are revealing the enormous disparity between ideology and reality at work here.
This disparity is perfectly illustrated in the subsequent scenes. First we are privy to a conversation with the Stones’ lawyers and principals, who are trying to negotiate the use of the Altamont Speedway with the racetrack’s owner. The Rolling Stones are reduced to a commodity here, albeit an extremely valuable one, as one of the lawyers admits he hasn’t even met Mick Jagger. There is no wide-eyed idealism expressed in the business meeting; the racetrack owner bluntly claims that festivals are a “pain in the ass,” and he is hesitant about letting the Stones use his property for a free concert. The next scene acts as a foil to this impersonal but pragmatic gathering. The Rolling Stones are in the Muscle Shoals Studio, where so many of their idols recorded, listening to the recently produced ballad, “Wild Horses.” Each member of the Stones is completely absorbed by the music, to the extent that the viewer feels like a voyeur witnessing a most exclusive experience. This is the Rolling Stones’ concept of rock and roll, and it cannot be shared with the public.
The remainder of the film consistently challenges notions of who controls rock and roll by contrasting musicians’ optimistic statements with concert footage that invalidates these beliefs. We witness Stones fans erratically climbing onto the stage at a concert before Altamont, yet Jagger still claims that all his fans want to do is listen to music, do drugs and love each other. The violence that takes place at Altamont crushes the idea that Jagger and the Stones have ultimate authority over the behavior of their fans. We never hear Jagger take back his previous assertions that peace is possible at large gatherings, but the footage of the Stones frantically boarding a helicopter and flying away from the chaotic concert says it all. Ultimately, GIMME SHELTER leaves the viewer with the impression that the Rolling Stones were as much victims of rock and roll as progenitors of it.