Gimme Shelter

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 6, New York: The greatest of rock documentaries. What happens when you combine masters of documentary filmmaking with incredible subjects with events of historical import? Some of the best filmmaking magic in the biz. There’s one scene to remember vividly from this film: Mick Jagger watching Altamont on the flatbed editor while someone gets knifed in the audience. His hyperawareness of being filmed watching himself being filmed is palpable. The ironic distance between a Mick who knows something bad is happening but not the extent and a Mick who knows what previous Mick does not, but also knows enough to make no substantive comment. Gimme Shelter!.

As a lover of the Stones (and particularly of Sticky Fingers) it’s incredible to watch young Mick prancing about on stage or ageless Keith jamming out to “Wild Horses” at Muscle Shoals in his snakeskin cowboy boots. It’s a concert film of a different era— when viewers had the patience to watch the whole song. As a student of history, the Altamont scenes are riveting. The tension is palpable between the Angels and hippies and the menace of the Angels oozes out of the screen, especially when they’re standing three feet from Mick on the stage. You find yourself watching your protagonists, thinking, “Get out of there! It’s not safe!”

As a fan, it’s amazing, but my favorite way to watch this film is as a producer of and student of documentary technique. People call this a vérité masterpiece. It is, to an extent, as it is a Maysles Brothers movie. But that misses two innovations that the Maysles introduce. The first comes at the very start with drummer Charlie Watts as the filmmakers sit him down in front of a flatbed editor and explain to him, “Having this footage of you watching the footage will allow us to cut to any point in the film easily.” Brilliant. And, of course, that sets the filmmakers up to give you the band’s reaction to the events at Altamont. Or in Mick Jagger’s case, the stoic non-reaction.

The second innovation I learned about when I watched this in college. Altamont was supposed to be the Woodstock of the West— hundreds of thousands of concert-goers scattered across hundreds of acres. Two Maysles were not going to be able to cover all of that themselves. So a call went out: anyone with a 16mm film camera, come to Altamont and help us shoot. Dozens came, including a young George Lucas with a USC Film School camera he’d checked out for the weekend. All of these perspectives gave the editors much wider coverage to work with. Instead of only seeing the performers and the shapeless crowd (from 2-3 cameras) we see the characters in the audience and the Angels’ aggression building over the day. An event with an open call to dozens of camera operators— Gimme Shelter is, perhaps, the first crowdsourced documentary.

I loved re-watching this one. And my quickness to call it the greatest rock documentary also made me resolve to watch Led Zeppelin in The Song Remains the Same for the first time in 2015.

You can watch Gimme Shelter from the Internet. And you should. Even you, Aaron-who-hates-the-Stones.

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