Rolling Stones at 55: a look at Gimme Shelter (1970)
1969 is the key year to understanding not only the events that ultimately dictated the approach the Maysles brothers took of what was initially planned to be a documentary in the style of Woodstock or Monterey, but also of the general feeling of malaise that impregnated the so-called love generation and turned their worst nightmare into reality.
There are Beatles people and there are Rolling Stones people, and although one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other, it’s usually very hard to find someone who claims to like both acts equally. However, a team of filmmakers that was lucky enough to work with both The Beatles and The Stones, discreetly breaking barriers in what comes to capturing a band’s essence either live or off-stage during those wild formative years of rock’n’roll: the Maysles brothers.
Agreed, Michael Lindsay-Hogg also worked with both bands (he directed Let It Be and The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus), but his focus and subsequent results were much more oriented towards the music per se — we must keep in mind he was one of the main pushers of finding a live solution for the ending of the Beatles’ opus — instead of crafting a different approach of his subject(s) from a particular angle and developing a full documentary narrative from there. Which is exactly what the Maysles brothers did.
Their talent for reinventing from the inside when it came to music documentaries finds its confirmation in the simple fact that Richard Lester based his cinematographical take — or at least its departure point — of A Hard Day’s Night on their TV documentary What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (later reedited as The Beatles’ First U.S. Visit).
Gimme Shelter, one of the finest pieces of music documentary of the late 1960s/early 1970s, also provides for a different look at the dynamics of a band, on and off stage, with the added condiment of said band being at a transformative stage of its existence.
By the time 1969 arrived, the already very fragmented Beatles were stepping out of the limelight, which automatically turned the Stones into the natural successors to the throne. That didn’t mean Mick Jagger and company were going through a particularly excellent and stable period: with the sacking of Brian Jones in early summer (the guitarist and founder of the group would be found dead a couple of weeks after) and subsequent integration of ex-John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers Mick Taylor, a growing dissatisfaction and distrust in manager Allen Klein, and a recent re-rising from the ashes that had resulted from their scapegoat status for the last couple of years, there was a sense of dispersion and excitement in the air, with everything happening very quickly and very intensely — both the good and the bad.
Indeed, 1969 is the key year to understanding not only the events that ultimately dictated the approach the Maysles brothers took of what was initially planned to be a documentary in the style of Woodstock or Monterey, but also of the general feeling of malaise that impregnated the so-called love generation and turned their worst nightmare into reality.
A previous warning came in early August under the form of the Tate/LaBianca murders (a series of crimes that Marianne Faithfull would later refer to as “a judgement on us all”), a tragic occurrence that, added to the imminent separation of the Beatles and spreading of the “Paul Is Dead” theory (a solid proof of the twisted nature of urban legends), should have been enough to let the Stones know the stars weren’t quite favourable to their December project — to say the least.
Gimme Shelter portrays this (arguably) unexpected sour turn of events in a rough and intense way. The Rolling Stones we see on stage here are very different from the band we were used to in the mid-60s — something that becomes shockingly obvious if one compares their performance and overall on-screen attitude in the Maysles’ brothers film with the footage found on Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling. Yes, they were always the slightly menacing version of the clean-cut Liverpudlian quartet, but that was more of a marketing strategy put together by Andrew Loog Oldham than the essence of the band itself — although they eventually started to believe that themselves and turned that construction into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Gimme Shelter also marks the beginning of Jagger’s own self-parody, when he started to become a caricature of himself and a faker version of his own persona, which can be ultimately seen as a direct consequence of the weight that came with no longer having to share the “pretty boy” limelight with Brian. However, and especially during the off-stage sequences, he embodies the spirit of the end of the decade perfectly: he tries to act cheerful, funny, and cool, but there’s an omnipresent concern in his eyes that, when matched with Keith Richard’s permanent heroin nodding, allows for an abstract portrait of what can be called “the aesthetics of the end” to surface. This aesthetics, also present in road movies like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, is characterised by a deep and transversal undertone of despair, of having nothing to lose, and of gambling dangerously with death — be it through the (ab)use of drugs or violence.
It is in the combination of all these factors that lay the foundations for the perfect storm, or what became known as “the Altamont Incident”. Gimme Shelter, however, takes the tragic events to a whole new level by showing not only the footage of Meredith Hunter’s murder but also Jagger’s reaction to it. This is an unprecedented move within documentary-making, as it allows for the viewer to gain privileged access to situations he wouldn’t experience otherwise and to the skeleton of the documentary itself, adding an extra layer to the portrait of the Rolling Stones made by the film.
It also presents the band in the light of an interesting paradox: they are simultaneously famous and adored beyond dispute, having recovered from the disaster that had been 1967 (the Their Satanic Majesties’ Request flop and Jagger/Richards’ drug bust) with Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed, while they seem, for the first time, to fear their fans and not recognise themselves in them. Gimme Shelter underlines the ever-growing gap between idol and fan that initially arose from the appearance and immediate sacralisation of the rock star in late 1968, a status that in its turn evolved from a mix of the Pop Idol, the New Aristocracy, and the Jeunesse Dorée, showing a band that increasingly stands aside its audience: Altamont is the final drop that accelerates the construction of this bubble.
The Rolling Stones have been playing together for 55 years now, and seem to be in no hurry to stop. However, and given that their shows have arguably become little more than mere nostalgia trips over the last couple of decades, one can’t help but be surprised by their enviable energy at 70 as well as their ability to keep going after what must have been a most traumatic occurrence — even if there are but three original members left. The relevance of Gimme Shelter then emerges not only as a (brilliant) film with an über-relevant place in the history of rock’n’roll timeline, but also as a coping mechanism that ultimately helped the band put that fateful night (and year) behind.
Originally published in August 2017 at thefourohfive.com