Friday, October 12, 2012

Rocktober: 'Gimme Shelter' (1970)

Directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles along with Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter is known as the documentary about the tragedy at the Rolling Stones' free concert at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco in 1969, an event that was perceived as the end of the innocence for the free love/flower child era, the dark counterpoint to the hippie exuberance of Woodstock. The movie is very much about that event and those themes, but it's also a pretty electrifying look at the Rolling Stones' live show, since it started merely as a document of their 1969 concert tour, not a deliberate look into the seedy underbelly of the counterculture.

The movie's first performances are taken from the Stones' concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and they're completely captivating, with the band at the height of its musical prowess and showmanship. Zwerin and the Maysles frame the movie with scenes of the Stones members watching the earlier footage, and one of the first scenes has Mick Jagger listening to a radio program discussing the aftermath of Altamont, so the specter of that disaster hangs over the entire film. But the filmmakers allow for some straight-up rock n' roll exuberance to get things going, and it's thrilling to watch even with the awareness of what's to come later.

That awareness casts a sort of ominous dread over the scenes of the Stones' handlers trying to negotiate a location for the concert, as well as the early parts of the day, when things are already clearly going wrong during the acts leading up to the Stones' headline performance. The filmmakers don't provide any broader context, and they don't offer any judgment, instead just showing in a direct, unvarnished way how things progressed from amiable chaos to dark anarchy. The Stones themselves seem oblivious to how things could have gone so wrong, and even as they're watching the footage later, they seem almost in shock. The movie doesn't exactly blame them for what went wrong, but the final freeze frame of Jagger does seem to indict them at least for being naive. In the end Gimme Shelter isn't about providing answers, merely showing one band at two extremes, captivating and transporting an audience at the beginning, and totally losing control of another audience by the end.

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