Thursday, 26 March 2015

1,001 Films: "Gimme Shelter" (1970)

At once a landmark documentary, and a deeply problematic one, Gimme Shelter starts out as a record of the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour of the US - a response, perhaps, to Don't Look Back, Pennebaker's 1967 film of Bob Dylan touring the UK - before pulling back to reveal we're no longer live on stage with Mick and the boys performing "Jumpin' Jack Flash", but mired in the edit suite with the three documentary makers (brothers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin) at the tour's conclusion. The showmen of rock are hereby reduced to the passive position of spectators, looking at monitors and reacting to what's already happened: the fatal stabbing of a fan amid the chaos of Altamont by one of the Hell's Angels recruited as an ad hoc security detail for this concert in particular. It's the moment when this touring lark became much less of a gas, gas, gas; a moment that captures, in a few frames on a Steenbeck, the murderous madness of America as it entered the 1970s.

The central issue of Gimme Shelter is whether allowing the film's subjects into post-production comprises a legitimate tactic or something of a stitch-up on the part of the filmmakers. It's interesting that the Maysles and Zwerin separate out the Stones, presenting the fateful footage to one band member at a time, as though these were criminals being interrogated to see whether their alibis for the night in question matched up. What they - and we - see is, of course, horribly compelling, less a set building towards the big finale than a countdown to a disaster. Showbiz lawyer Melvin Belli bluffs his way through the early venue negotiations; the concert footage comes to resemble the dark side of Woodstock (released the same year, yet unfolding seemingly half a world away). Organised - in the loosest sense of that word - under the credo "let it happen", Altamont was fractious, with acid casualties staging pitched battles both on and off-stage even before Keith Richards struck up the opening chords of "Sympathy for the Devil".

The Maysles/Zwerin team take care to include a good deal of Stones music, perhaps to placate fans, because not even Godard (in 1968's One Plus One) put the band under this level of sustained scrutiny. As it plays out, how much the group were responsible for Altamont remains open to question: certainly Jagger cuts a pitiable figure on stage, suddenly removed of his swagger and murmuring "Sam, we need an ambulance... I don't know what the fuck I'm doing." (It is, if nothing else, a potent film about the limitations of rock stars, and the limitations of music to make the world a better place; it tears away several subsequent Band-Aids and confronts us with the ugly wounds no guitar riff can heal.) It shares with Don't Look Back an interest in just what it means to be in the eye of the storm and/or the camera, or in the middle of a crossfire hurricane, but - for all the electrifying content it gathers up and pores over - you do sense a long-disproved equation lurking somewhere behind it all: rock 'n' roll = damaging to our nation's youth. It's a brilliant film, made by squares.

Gimme Shelter is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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