The second Merry Clayton screamed about rape and murder being just a shot away in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” did the 1960s really feel like they were abruptly coming to an end. With the free love generating the counterculture movement slowly disintegrating into disillusionment following frustrating years of war and political turmoil (often said to have been made worse by the Manson family murders of the same year), America was headed in a direction more pessimistic, more wary, than it had ever crept toward.
Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary chronicling the final few weeks of the Stones’ 1969 US Tour (and, more infamously, their cataclysmic Altamont Free Concert that resulted in the deaths of four people), is a powerful inside look into the crumbling in of the hopeful days of the '60s. Here do we see a band who once thrived on carefree fun suffering from the lows of ennui, and here do we see audiences who’d rather cause a commotion than be the people they once were when America finally seemed to be a promising place in which to live.
It wasn’t initially planned to be the cultural summarizer that it has grown to become over the years. Originally were directors Charlotte Zwerin and Albert and David Maysles hired by the band to document their antics a la Dylan’s Don’t Look Back (1967) or Elvis’s That’s the Way It Is (1970), with Gimme Shelter planned to be used as an advertising tool of sorts. (They had already flirted with documentary filmmaking through 1968’s Sympathy for the Devil, which was directed by Jean-Luc Godard and shined a light on the iconic song’s recording.)
But from the start is it clear that something is amiss, that tension is thickly spread and urgently needs to be broken down. From the footage of the stretch of ’69 shows does everything seem perfectly fine, cameos from Ike and Tina Turner, for instance, reassuring us that all in store is a conventional tour we’d perhaps wish we’d have been able to attend. But when the planning for the free show is underway — the size of the area is massive, and the Hells Angels are hired for security — we can feel an inexplicable, but very much there, foreboding that almost promises future artistic dystopia.
From the assault on one of opening band Jefferson Airplane’s members within the first few minutes into the show to the brief but chilling flash of a knife during the Stones’ first song does it become clear that Gimme Shelter is hardly a rollicking rockumentary a la Stop Making Sense (1984) or Truth or Dare (1991) but a cultural artifact hardly about its focal musicians at all. It’s about the almost startlingly quick shift in the collective mood of a society switching decades and switching ideals — the documentary is merely a small scale exemplification of the widespread phenomenon.
In watching was I taken aback — Gimme Shelter, purposely filmed without documentary staples (like talking heads, romanticized voiceovers, and cobbled together sequencing), is so in the moment, so perturbingly real, that I found myself feeling as though I were definitively part of the year in which the movie was filmed, able to empathize both with the reality of the general population and with the reality of the prosperous Stones. In watching could I feel the disaffection of the crowd, the horror of musicians inadvertently responsible for bringing together uncontrollable chaos. Gimme Shelter is so mightily effective because it’s more than just a concert movie; it’s also an unaffected record lucky to have been filmed. One wishes it were longer — it’s more eye-opening than any fictional account of its decade. A-