Gimme Shelter (1970): Maysles and Zwerin’s Controversial Docu of Rolling Stones

The Maysles brothers, David and Albert, and Charlotte Zwerin directed Gimme Shelter, the 16mm documentary of the 1969 Rolling Stones concert tour, focusing on Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, a free performance which ended when members of the Hell’s Angels, hired by the Stones to provide security, killed an audience member. 


An antidote to the love and musical festival of Woodstock, in August 1969, the Maysles’ “direct cinema” style imbues their concert film with social commentary in both manifest and latent ways. Re-released on the occasion of its 30th anniversary is one of the most intense and significant rock & roll film ever made, both musically and sociologically.


Decades after its initial release, “Gimme Shelter” remains the powerful dark spectacle of rock & roll, and a document of mass behavior that should be used in sociology classes. 


A volcanic performer with boundless energy, Mick Jagger, backed by the Rolling Stones gyrates on stage at the Altamont Speedway as the audience surges in front of him.  The song “Sympathy for the Devil” sounds more aggressive than it does on any recording due to Jagger, the combustible satyr, whips into a greater and greater frenzy.  Jagger sings and dances as if he has known the devil’s pleasures, conjuring feelings and experiences that even he’s afraid of. 


Caught on tape, moments later, a young black man is stabbed in the back, in the front of the stage, by a member of Hell’s Angels, who are ostensibly there to control the crowd.   The docu chronicle how multiple dark forces came together—Hell’s Angels there for a fight, the concert with a stage too close to the spectators, a mixed crowd of hippies, roughnecks and music lovers. What they needed shelter from, it turns out, was themselves.


A harrowing and depressing glimpse of the state of American rock culture, the docu was roughed up by critics in the same way that messengers used to be punished for bearing bad news.  But it raises many questions, bringing out the moral ambiguities of using cinema verite, such as what effect does the presence of a camera have on “reality,” or what passes as reality.


Unlike “Woodstock,” youth is less the subject than the object of the film, which aims less to investigate the phenomena it depicts than to confront them emotionally by offering thrills as well as some disturbing shocks. The sensational material could have resulted in a more extreme and repulsive film, with exploitations of glamour and horror.  But the Maysles, using tact and craftsmanship, have created a poignant docu that’s also entertaining


Docu opens after Altamont, with Jagger and Charlie Watts mulling over the event in the Maysles’ cutting room.  Between performances and backstage episodes and flashes-forward to the ominously unruly negotiations that preceded the festival (Melvin Bell presiding), it returns repeatedly to the cutting room, receiving clues to the action from Jagger’s various reactions of being delighted, exhausted, bitter, and pained.


There are images of violence and hysteria, the malignancy of the evil, the impotence of the anguished.  “Why are we fighting?“ Jagger shrills at the unheeding throng and, almost as he speaks, a Hell’s Angel, one of many to have brutalized people, stabs a gun-wielding black youth to death in full view of the stage.  (The killing happens very fast).


The body is carted away, the concert ends, and the Stones take off in their helicopter.  Then we return to the cutting room for a replay of the crime, witnessing the gun, the knife, the struggle. Watching the footage, Jagger says, “Would you run that last part through again, David?”  Is his line rehearsed?  For many, his reaction is like a splash of icy water in the face.  The film ends with an intimation of life emerging from shock and going on. 


Some felt that the real moral issue–the filmmakers’ complicity—was avoided by the Maysles and their team in chronicling a youth culture event that got out of hand.  There was steadily building tension between the band and the audience, and by the end of the concert, several people were dead.


The docu includes sequences of Jagger and friends viewing footage exposed at the concert–making it perhaps the first work trying to show its principals responding to the record of their own behavior in action and in crisis.  Jagger appears to be nearly affectless; there is no expression on his face.  He makes no comment, except asking for a rerun, when the filmmakers show him the killing they “happened to catch.”   Then he simply gets up and leaves the screening session, bringing the movie to an end.   By letting us see him in an unflattering light, Jagger may be expressing his own state of alienation or self-estrangement, or failing to see the limitations of his charismatic persona.


For the record, “Gimme Shelter” excludes other bands that performed that day, and reportedly, there was more chaos and violence than ever captured on film.


End Note


The docu was later used by the police to identify the man who killed the black youth.  Already imprisoned for another crime when identified in the Maysles’ footage, he was later acquitted on grounds of self-defense.