For no particular reason that I can discern I found myself compelled to watch the Maysles brothers’ classic 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter on YouTube late on recent Friday night.
It’s a fantastic cinematic accomplishment that can be equally appreciated as a document of one of the darkest episodes in the disintegration of the ’60s counterculture and as a larger meditation on how utopian innocence can curdle into dystopian horror.
Brothers Albert and David Maysles, who died in 2015 and 1987 respectively, were masters of cinéma vérité, and the “fly on the wall” approach pioneered by Albert. It’s one I’ve tried to apply to my journalism, in service of the goal of letting the subject come through so vividly that the media maker practically disappears into the work.
Gimme Shelter — which follows the Rolling Stones from outset of their 1969 US tour through its horrific culmination, with a Hells Angel stabbing Meredith Hunter at the disastrous Altamont concert in northern California — includes no interviews or narration, mostly just the cameras clinging to concert performances, hotel rooms, press conferences and legal negotiations leading up to the unfolding tragedy.
Yet ironically, the footage that cuts through the Rolling Stones’ artifice — Mick Jagger prancing and preening onstage, directing a promotional photo shoot and making glib pronouncements at press conferences — are revealing scenes that can best be described as “playbacks.” In contrast to the charismatic prophet of sexual libertinism onstage, Jagger the bandleader reviewing the gruesome footage is more deliberate and guarded. His intense gaze reveals mortification, smoldering anger and calculating self-awareness all at the same time before he says, “That’s enough,” and walks out.
A more transcendent moment comes when the cameras capture the band listening to the playback of “Wild Horses” at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, with Keith Richards sprawled out, eyes closed, possessed by the song in what can only be described as a state of blissful oblivion. The camera comes in for a tight focus on his face — he’s nodding and mouthing the lyrics — and then zooms down his pant leg to his worn snakeskin boots tapping out the rhythm.
Incidentally, Gimme Shelter provides one of the most unflattering portrayals of my favorite band, the Grateful Dead. The Dead, by some accounts, recommended that the Stones hire the Angels as security for the concert. The footage briefly shows Jerry Garcia (whose demeanor seems small and mole-like in the film, according to my friend Matt) and Phil Lesh making their way across the festival grounds. “Hells Angels are doing beating on musicians?” Lesh asks, in not the most communal spirit. “It doesn’t seem right, man.”
The footage of the festival itself — an apocalyptic scene of chopped-out bikes roaring through clusters of hippies in the desert and bikers wildly swinging sticks at concertgoers — is the ultimate depiction of a collective bad trip. The scenes of volunteers crawling over the landscape just before dawn with sound equipment, beer, even a mattress, seem almost Biblical, and then just before the closing credits, one sees human forms staggering away, almost seeming to cling to the earth like scurrying crabs, primordial creatures coughed up from the depths of hell.