Gimme Shelter (1970)
Director: David & Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Plot: A harrowing documentary of the Stones' 1969 tour, with much of the focus on the tragic concert at Altamont.
Genre: Documentary / Music
Rating: NC16 for coarse language, some violence and nudity.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“Who's fighting and what for?”
I had the pleasure of bringing in a rare 16mm print of Gimme Shelter to screen as part of the Perspectives Film Festival five years ago. The sound was in raw mono, and the projection rather pristine for a print that had been circulating for forty years.
Now, the chance to revisit the title in Criterion Blu-ray with 5.1 surround was too great an opportunity to refuse. Gimme Shelter is still utterly engrossing, despite knowing how it all would play out. I suspect that has been the case for many viewers for the last few decades. It is a film that never ages.
Part of the reason is that it is a fascinating time capsule that brings us back to the free-wheeling but harrowing late sixties – a time when rock-and-roll and counter-culture reached its fascinating zenith, as documented by the acclaimed three-hour documentary Woodstock (1970), but also plummeted into the dark abyss when a free concert by The Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway ended in tragedy and disillusionment.
Directed by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, and possibly their most controversial and powerful work. By documenting the free concert like any other music documentary, the filmmakers uncover shocking footage, revealing the darkness of human nature- the propensity for violence, the effects of drugs, celebrity culture and racism.
Fresh off their important feature Salesman (1968), the Maysles who were one of the pioneers and advocates of what was then called 'Direct Cinema', characterized by filmmakers documenting reality as it is, handles not just the dark material that unfolds on screen with aplomb, but also challenging us to think about the nature of documentary filmmaking when it exudes a meta-filmic quality.
There are a number of scenes in Gimme Shelter where Mick Jagger himself watches “Gimme Shelter” in the editing room, compounding problematic issues related to the reflexivity of cinema, subjectivity, and veracity of what really happened.
Gimme Shelter is a must-watch, and while its status as perhaps the best rock-and-roll movie of all-time is rarely questioned, it is also probably because it offers so much – great music, sights and sounds, controversies, and quite simply, breathtaking filmmaking
Verdict: A masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, the Maysles’ Rolling Stones concert film is an utterly engrossing time capsule that brings us back to the free-wheeling but harrowing late sixties.
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