Gimme Shelter

Rick Ojo McGrath

Directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Filmed by the Maysles Brothers
Key Cast: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman
Uncredited Cast: Marty Balin, Melvin Belli, Dick Carter, Sam Cutler, Jerry Garcia, John Jaymes, Paul Kantner, Michael Lang, Phil Lesh, Ron Schneider, Grace Slick, Tina Turner, Bob Weir

Music Credits:

Rolling Stones: Jumping Jack Flash, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, You Gotta Move, Wild Horses, Brown Sugar, Love In Vain, Honky Tonk Woman, Street Fighting Man, Sympathy For The Devil, Under My Thumb, Gimme Shelter

Rolling Stones: Gimme ShelterIke & Tina Turner: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Six Days On The Road
Jefferson Airplane: The Other Side Of This Life

(Colour, 1970) Running Time: 91 min.
Format: Original 1.33:1 Aspect
Audio: Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround sound

“Ooh, a storm is threatening my very life today
If I don't get some shelter, oh yeah I'm gonna fade away
War, children, it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away
War, children, it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away”

Shelter Given.

I was working as the rock critic for the Georgia Straight when Gimme Shelter first played in Vancouver. I had tickets for the opening matinee, and when I blinked into the light after the movie I was suddenly being interviewed by a local TV station. I don’t remember much of it – probably an example of selective memory – but I hope I said then what I say now: Gimme Shelter is a deft and subtle film that’s more movie than documentary, a chilling exercise in voyeurism which allows the audience to ironically participate in a pocket of violence which came to symbolize the end of the so-called counter culture of the late 1960s.

Unlike Cocksucker Blues, the suppressed film of the Stones’ notorious 1972 North American tour, Gimme Shelter reeks of professional technique, clever ideas, and lots of cash.

You’ll not see many opening scenes like the in-your-face start to Gimme Shelter. We begin with The Stones doing a bit of Beatles-like dressup spoofery on a road, which cuts to Madison Square Garden for a hopped-up rendition of Jumpin Jack Flash, which segues into Charlotte Zwerin’s editing suite in London, where a bemused Mick Jagger is watching himself on an editing screen. Whoa. From fantasy to acting to reality in three quantum leaps. Now jump to Charlie Watts listening to Sonny Barger make excuses for the Angels. “I ain’t no cop”, he snarls. “They were messing with our bikes”. Now jump to Jagger, looking very nervous as Barger says Jagger may be fingering the Angels as the perpetrators, but that’s not the way he sees it. It’s completely riveting, and you’re hooked on all the themes right off the bat. Or pool cue.

Director/Film Editor Charlotte Zwerin has to be given credit for the film’s fascinating structure. In a flash of genius she asked members of The Stones to drop round her editing suite and check out the raw footage. They agreed, and cameras were set up to catch their reactions. Suddenly the film metamorphs from a documentary into something else, something doubly voyeuristic. This double removal from the action means the film takes on a timeless feeling, as The Present in the film is forever locked to those moments when The Stones watch the rough cuts and watch The Stones watching the rough cuts… and watch The Stones – you get the idea. So the “documentary”, which reveals the story in a normal timeframe, is now fragmented into flashbacks. This startling new structure means Gimme Shelter not a true documentary, but not really fiction, either. What we witness is a powerful new combination of reality and fiction, told through action and reaction.

This structure, this self-referential mirror, is also the perfect way (perhaps the only way) for The Stones to deflect charges that they were responsible for the Altamont concert, which not only filled the void with bad vibes but which wiped out all the good vibes of Woodstock, which I was surprised to remember was a mere four months earlier. Ahh, the power of symbolism. Having Barger accuse Jagger right off the top was no doubt a calculated risk on Sir Mick’s part, but it works, and any ideas you might have about the Angels being non-instigators is completely shattered by the end of the concert.

But The Stones don’t emerge unscathed, either. It’s freaky to watch Jagger watching himself at a news conference. “That’s bullshit,” he remarks to the onscreen Jagger, who has tried to be charming and glib with a female reporter. Mick has nothing to say next, however, as he watches himself tell the media about this free concert, a concert that will show the world a large group of people can get together and behave like the idealized hippy.

The irony fairly oozes.

Cut to a camera-loving Melvin Belli, relishing the fact he can phone up important people and speak on behalf of “The Rolling Stones”, and you already start to see why this ill-conceived concert was just about to be slid into the toaster.

Not Just Another Snuff Movie

It’s odd, but even exhaustive research of this movie reveals little of its status as a snuff film. Hey, we actually get to see the unfortunate Meredith Hunter being stabbed, zoomed right up close and in slow motion, and unlike the visually degraded Zapruder film, this is shot in glorious 16mm colour by a professional cameraman. And it’s real.

A Celebration Of Technique

You can’t watch this movie and not be impressed by the way it comes together. All the shots are great, and Zwerin’s editing is unbelievably tight. The film’s unusual structure gives her mind-wrenching leeway in terms of cuts, because she can always segue to the present for a comment or reaction, and escape the chronological boundaries of the basic storyline. One might expect this bouncing back and forth to become a tad tedious after awhile, but to Zwerin’s credit most are natural and flowing. A few are incredible.

This “time bounce” structure also takes advantage of the lack of filmed material Zwerin had to work with. Essentially, there are lots of shots of Altamont, a bit shot in Belli’s office, a bit shot in a hotel room, the muscle shoals bit and the MSG concert. There may also be footage from a west coast concert… nothing is identified. Zwerin skillfully moves to each from her home base at the editing table, and magically seems to stretch the beginning to balance off the wildly overshot Altamont sequence (for which the Maysles used 22 cameramen, including a young George Lucas, and 14 Nagra-toting soundmen).

The sound is good in digital dolby 5.1, and the picture quality – this print is taken from the uncut 30 Years Anniversary master – is very good.

There’s A Lot Of Extra Goodies

Criterion wildly overcharges for their so-called arty flicks, and Gimme Shelter is no exception. You do, however, receive a fair number of DVD goodies:

· Never-before-seen performances of the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1969, including Little Queenie, Oh Carol and Prodigal Sun, plus backstage outtakes

· Audio commentary by directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, and collaborator Stanley Goldstein

· Excerpts from KSAN radio’s Altamont wrap-up, recorded December 7, 1969, with new introductions by then-DJ Stefan Ponek

· Altamont stills gallery, featuring the work of photos Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower

· A 44-page booklet (this is great – it contains all the tech specs, plus six essays on Altamont, including one from Sonny Barger – he still blames the “sissy, marble-mouthed prima donna” Stones for everything)

· Originals and re-releases of theatrical trailers, plus trailers for Maysles Films’ classics Grey Gardens and Salesman

· Filmographies for Maysles Films and Charlotte Zwerin

· Restoration demonstration

· English subtitles

Looking Into A Heavy Space

There’s no doubt this movie is a masterpiece. The overwhelming wrong-way reality of it all reaches out to tell its story in ways the Ancient Mariner never dreamed. The story: compelling. The actors: well, if you call a 150-pound Mick Jagger, dressed in a ludicrous outfit, being stared at by uncomprehending, armed, doped up Angels, and quickly losing control of the situation, acting, then the acting is great. The so-called death of the Age of Aquarius: you still listen to Donovan? The question of hubris: Jagger is damned. The reality of violence: it happens a lot faster than you think. The marketing of rock stars: the boys come across as hard-working and straight. Wow. A clue. There’s a lot of heavy shit going on in these 91 minutes, and what emerges is a lot deeper than a rock ‘n’ roll movie with a bad ending.

In many ways, this movie created the myth of Altamont, just as the music and movie shaped the myth of Woodstock into a trippy nirvana/eden for people too wasted to help themselves. With great background music. But Gimme Shelter creates the myth of Jagger as The Devil, and destroys it by showing Mick wearing the emperor’s clothes. It’s that audacious irony that separates Gimme Shelter from all other rock tour flicks.

Personally, I could care less about the film’s subplot of pointing blame. It’s ancient history. Today the Angels don’t guard rock concerts, they sell the drugs consumed at rock concerts. And what kind of a space were we in to think that collecting 300,000 plus people in one place to listen to rock stars – and do it without fighting! – was something that was good and could set our generation apart. Were we crazy? Musta been stoned, for sure. And tribal.

Today, Gimme Shelter doesn’t have the emotional baggage that made it devil red hot in the 70s. And that’s probably good, because today you can watch it and appreciate it for what it really is: a chance, dramatic happenstance, brilliantly captured on film and even more brilliantly edited into a pandora of a movie.

Shelter a copy of this in your DVD player, real soon.

© Rick McGrath 6/02

AJO RATING: Ajo's rating


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