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Still Rolling: 40 Years of the Rolling Stones on Film – “Gimme Shelter”

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By Matt Singer

In honor of their 40 years on movie screens, from 1968’s “Sympathy for the Devil” to last week’s release of “Shine a Light,” we’re taking a look at The Rolling Stones’ filmography, featuring enough collaborations with great directors to make any actor jealous and enough abandoned or aborted projects to give any movie investor heartburn.

04102008_gimmershelter1.jpgGimme Shelter (1970)
Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin

The Film: The Rolling Stones watch the events of their recent American tour as they play out before them on a flatbed editing machine. Though their return to the States was filled with plenty of highlights, including a triumphant series of concerts at Madison Square Garden and a successful recording session at Muscle Shoals Studios, all that really seems to matter is the disastrous result of their free concert held outside of San Francisco at the Altamont Speedway. Intended as a companion event to the recent Woodstock Festival, the day was regularly interrupted by outbursts of bad vibes and outright violence, culminating in the death of Meredith Hunter, an African-American teenager in front of the stage during the Stones’ set, forever marking the show as one of the unofficial signposts on the road to the end of the 1960s.

The Rolling Stones Are: Mick Jagger on vocals, Keith Richards on guitar, Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass, and, for the first time on screen, Mick Taylor on guitar. When founding member Brian Jones couldn’t get a visa for their upcoming American tour, the rest of the Stones fired him in the summer of 1969. (Jones died less than a month after his sacking.) On the recommendation of blues musician John Mayall, Taylor got the job, and though he doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue in “Gimme Shelter,” his presence is felt in all the musical numbers, which are grittier and tighter than any of the performances in “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.”

With Special Guest Stars: Opening for the Stones on the tour were Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King. The latter never appears in “Gimme Shelter,” but the former give a memorable rendition “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” in which Tina lovingly and ever-so-suggestively caresses the microphone throughout. Watching the luckiest mic stand in history, Albert Maysles notes on the film’s DVD commentary track that “this was a different period of time… when sexuality was more direct.” Boy, I’ll say. At Altamont itself, the lengthy bill included The Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to appear but backed out after learning of the chaos and violence; the Maysles’ cameras captures their arrival at the venue and the looks of concern on their faces as they learn of the injury to one of the members of Jefferson Airplane.

Best Performance: About 40 minutes into the film, the Stones play “Honky Tonk Woman” and just before the chorus, the first of a string of fans bursts onto the stage and tries to tackle Jagger. Some might just be groupies; others are a bit more intimidating looking; the dude in the dark green jacket sure wasn’t after Mick just to give him a kiss. Nevertheless, Jagger barely misses a beat, and seconds after he’s nearly been dragged to the ground, he’s wiggling his hips and pogoing to the words “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind!” The incidents are altogether terrifying, and seem to portend the even more aggressive audience outbursts that await the Stones at Altamont, but Jagger laps up every second of the attention. After the song wraps, he works the audience up some more. “I think I busted a button on my trousers! I hope they don’t fall down!” he announces with a tinge of faux naughtiness. “You don’t want my trousers to fall down now do you?” Cue the girls’ squeals.

04102008_gimmershelter2.jpgYou Can’t Always Get What You Want: Pretty much every second of the footage of the Stones’ set from Altamont is remarkable, but there are only two numbers: “Sympathy For the Devil” and “Under My Thumb,” the track the band was playing when Meredith Hunter brandished a gun for reasons unknown and was stabbed to death (in self-defense, according to a jury) by several Hells Angels. The Stones played more; who knows what sorts of fascinating moments the Maysles captured but didn’t share with us.

Keith Richards is Weird: There’s a famous scene in “Gimme Shelter” where the Stones are listening to “Wild Horses” at Muscle Shoals, and the camera captures Richards sitting on a couch, head back, eyes closed, singing along more intensely than any fan every could, tapping his feet along to the rhythm in garish snakeskin boots. But that one moment overshadows a cornucopia of Richards’s antics; earlier in the same scene, he produces some kind of food label from his product and announces “Cousin Minnie says, ‘How delicious!'”; checking into the local hotel a short time later, Richards unlocks his door with the line, “Is my local groupie in?”; during the “Love in Vain” sequence, Richards is lying on the floor between the wall and the audio mixer. Still, credit where credit’s due: when the shit starts to hit the fan at Altamont, it’s Richards who makes the most passionate call for sanity when he points his finger directly at some of the scuffling and announces “Either those cats cool it, or we don’t play!” With that, order is restored, if only for a moment.

Aftermath: This is the third film in this informal series, but only the first time we see the Stones in something resembling an interview. In “Sympathy for the Devil,” they provide the soundtrack to a political tableau. In “Rock and Roll Circus,” they dress like buffoons while singing songs praising the working man and his hard life. In “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles convinced the band to allow them to record their reactions as they sit and watch the rough cut. Not surprisingly, they say little. It’s clear that the band is very comfortable performing as The Rolling Stones, but not terribly comfortable being the Rolling Stones.

Ironies abound: While the Stones’ last movie was a playfully staged carnival, “Gimme Shelter” documented a real circus. The last time Jagger appeared singing “Sympathy For the Devil,” he painted a big picture of Satan on his chest; this time when he sings it, something truly evil is about to happen. And yet, as Godfrey Cheshire noted in a New York Press article that’s included with the DVD, the images from Altamont are all the more alluring “for being so damned and damning.” For all the genuine horror contained in the footage — per Jagger’s request, you watch Hunter’s stabbing twice, first as it plays in real time and then again in slow motion on the Steenbeck — it’s also sort of mesmerizing, and as good an ad for the Maysles’ style of direct documentary cinema as there could be. As the ship sinks and the Stones keep right on playing, the Maysles’ cameras, primarily perched behind the band and shooting out into the crowd, record all these strange, vivid characters. Every time I watch these scenes, I’m enthralled by the girl in the front with long brown hair mockingly flashing peace signs until she realizes Jagger is looking at her, whereupon she self-consciously tosses her hair and starts dancing to the music, and the random guy who spends half of “Under My Thumb” standing next to Mick Jagger, tripping on acid, or the blond girl a few yards away who sits silently crying and nodding. There’s a prominent shot of Hunter in his mint green suit before his stabbing, playing with something in his pocket (the gun perhaps?) and another of Hells Angels leader, Sonny Barger, sizing up Mick Jagger while he sings “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“Gimme Shelter” shows the power of the camera and also its impotence; the Maysles managed to record this murder in the middle of this massive scuffle, but they couldn’t stop it. It does the same for rock and roll: All these tens of thousands of people come to Altamont to hear the Rolling Stones, but their most important plea falls on deaf ears.

[Photos: “Gimme Shelter,” Cinema 5 Distributing, 1970]

Part 1: “Sympathy for the Devil”
Part 2: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”

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