What is the link between artist and disaster? They live freewheeling lifestyles that see them flirt with fame and all the addictions that come with it. Those dying days of quiet acoustics and psychedelic rock paved the way to new innovations on old sounds. The Rolling Stones brought rock to life with such a tenacity and manic approach to how we utilise and consume music. Surely that is clear enough from the opening moments of Gimme Shelter. As Mick Jagger shakes and fumbles his way around the stage, those free and loose times are brought to life, but bogged down and contrast with immediacy and tension to the horrifying events of the disastrous Altamont Free Concert.
There is anguish and regret on the face of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Mick Taylor. It feels rather expected, though. That is the look of the burnt-out rocker who is expected to give it all but desires some free time. What they do and do not regret is an impossible question to impose on The Rolling Stones, so there is no need to ask. At least, that is the mindset taken by directors Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin and David Maysles. They hope music can convince us of the emotional fractures of the songwriters, and while that may ring true for fiction, non-fiction needs not only first-hand, original accounts, but also the context of the footage and filmmaking choices. They are irrational and erratic at times, but also follow a setlist of requirements for framing and editing. We see concert footage, pan out from a screen that an interviewee is watching on, and then rather than asking questions, the directors merely fixate on them until some audio from another source crops up to fill the awkward silences.
Sonny Barger may be a name that rings familiar with readers of Hunter S. Thompson. A maddening figure with a tenacity for violence and a technical skill for causing havoc. His inclusion in the tragedy of that concert should be no surprise to those intimate with that name and what its presence means. Where Gimme Shelter works though is not in reviling The Rolling Stones and the group around them, but in understanding their decision making. What actions they took, or the lack thereof in some parts is the reason for catastrophe. Alluring the charms of the celebrity status may be, it is the leading cause of catastrophe and Gimme Shelter provides a great deal of footage to back up this consideration. As Thompson wrote of Barger and his Hell’s Angels in his book, “He relates entirely to the present, the moment, the action.”
Where that quote rings true is in the efforts of this directing crew, who are focused on the moment and action of those caught up in the present. Cut between the concert footage is the slow build and inevitability of disaster. But the cuts grow larger, and the detail wears thin. Set the scene and use it as a launchpad for the detail, not the other way round. There are times where Maysles, Zwerin, and Maysles believe they are crafting a concert film rather than a documentary. It is only when they remember to cut to press footage or brief interview opportunities that Gimme Shelter gives us a bit of satisfaction. The aftermath is not covered with extreme detail, bogged down by the star power Jagger and his jam buddies had. That is the problem with relating to the present, the moment, the action.