It’s Not Only Rock and Roll
By Therra Cathryn Gwyn, staff writer
1969. Man walked on the moon.The NY Jets won the Super Bowl. Marilyn Monroe had been dead for five years and the Sex Pistols were still in grade school. Prince Charles officially became the Prince of Wales and Sesame Street debuted on US television. Madonna was 12, Bill Clinton was 23, and rock and roll as we know it was not even two decades old. Yet, even in 1969 the Rolling Stones were knee-deep into their tenure as the bad boys of rock and none of us had any idea just how long that tenure would last. The times, indeed, were a-changing and the recent re-release of Gimme Shelter shows a mood and moment like none before or since. Arguably the greatest rock documentary ever made ( some will vote for ” The Last Waltz”) this eerily beautiful film has the dubious distinction of being the only rockumentary to capture a murder on film.
Originally released in 1970, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin created a work that almost never made it into general release at all. From cutting the more colorful language and the shots of bare-breasted women ( reinserted in this restored version) just to secure a PG rating, to wrangling releases from hostile Hell’s Angels ( disgruntled over bad publicity) the film did not have an easy birth. Columnist Liz Smith said of it, ” It’s overwhelming. I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s a wild experience.”
Intended as an onstage and backstage record of the Stone’s 1969 tour North American tour the film opens innocently enough with comical footage of drummer Charlie Watts riding a donkey. The movie then flips back and forth in time from concert footage at various locales to Mick and company at the famed Muscle Shoals recording studio. Interspersed throughout the movie and leading up to the events at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco is footage of Watts and Jagger watching unedited clips of the film and concert. They look dazed and confused at times, a postmortem meditation on what went wrong that winter day. It’s a grim Jagger who views the killing of Meredith Hunter on a monitor after the fact. Still, he doesn’t give much away on what he thinks about the man who rushed towards the stage with a gun in his hand and was subsequently grabbed and stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels providing “security” for the event.
In watching ” Gimme Shelter” it’s obvious that following ” Under My Thumb” Jagger can see from his vantage point onstage that a scuffle has broken out but we never know if he saw the gun pointed at him. At the time cameraman Baird Bryant didn’t realize what he was filming. It looked for all the world like many of the troublesome fights that plagued that evening. With 300,000 people in attendance, there would be many who didn’t know what had happened until later.
The film, despite it’s sobering finale, is a fantastic representation of essentially the end of the flower-power era. Both the Stones and their fans are young and beautiful ( in retrospect, even Charlie Watts looks pretty good). The concert footage, from the riveting slow-motion ballet of ” Love In Vain” to the force of “Street Fighting Man” is gritty and graceful. The opening acts on the tour varied from city to city, and included B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Janis Joplin and Grand Funk Railroad. One especially memorable scene of Tina Turner blatantly fondling her mic while moaning her way through a sexually charged ” I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is worth the price of admission alone.
So this tour went much as big tours went in those days, and as it wound it’s way to the free concert in San Francisco, we are treated to plenty of the onstage Jagger, preening and pivoting in front of adoring crowds. Jagger is simply a one-man grad course in Being A Rock Star. He’s compelling on the stage and enigmatic off. Also included here is the sometimes highly amusing behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering by attorney Melvin Belli ( best known for representing Jack Ruby after he shot Lee Harvey Oswald) in trying to find a suitable location in California for the show that in years since has become known simply as “Altamont”. Woodstock had happened a scant four months previous and the Stones were eager to host their own groovy love-in by headlining a day of music that included Carlos Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Altamont ended up being anything but a love-in for those nearest the violent outbreaks that erupted that evening. Yet, elsewhere in the huge crowd that day, four children were born. Some of the most fascinating footage in the entire film is of the audience that sunny day; a half-naked woman dancing ecstatically to Jefferson Airplane, a German Shepard wandering nonchalantly across the stage as Jagger sings, an earnest young blonde soliciting donations to release jailed Black Panthers, ending with this plea against police brutality, ” They are just negroes!”. It’s a prolonged snapshot of a time we will never see again.
The restoration and rerelease of “Gimme Shelter” gives a vivid and unparalleled look at a time in history that is still affecting the way some things are done today, both politically and musically. For some it will be a trip back in time to when they were younger and more idealistic, when pot was cheap and love was free. For others it will be a glimpse into a world they’ve heard of but never lived in. It’s a shock-to-the-system, brilliant bit of filmmaking and should be required viewing for all students of American pop culture.
“Gimme Shelter” will be playing at Cinefest Feb. 9-15.
2001.Reprinted by permission.