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Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Gimme Shelter...

I finally get round to re-watching Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers document of the Stones 1969 US tour. It's a downbeat companion to the bros' 1964 film of the Beatles first visit, the two films forming bittersweet bookends to that brief golden epoch of British influence on global popular culture. It's an astonishing piece of verite and one which anyone wishing to make documentaries regardless of the subject matter ought to be compelled to watch before emabarking on their prospective careers. It sets a tough benchmark. For those who don't know the story, the Stones agreed to play a free concert just outside San Fransisco. 200,000 or so young people made a beeline to the Altamont Speedway to see the Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Burritos perform in a spirit of love and peace. Bad acid, bad vibes and the violent crowd control methods deployed by the Hells Angels chapter who had been charged with providing "security" for the acts, ended in a frenzy of violence during which a gun wielding youth, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed by one of the Angels as the Stones played 'Sympathy for the Devil'.

The film cleverly cuts between footage of the Stones tour leading up to that awful climactic denouement with that of the downcast group reviewing the events in the cutting room over the 8 weeks it took to painstakingly put the film together. If ever a film were made in the cutting room, this is it - not just because the marathon splicing job so evidently succeeded in draining every drop of resonance and power from the filmstock, but because the nightmarish aftermath of the horrific events is played out there on the drawn and stunned faces of the Stones themselves. Jagger appears to have grown up overnight - visibly shaken and self-recriminating, he's a far cry from the cock-sure, Uncle Sam-hatted dandy of the film's early concert footage. It's sobering and telling to see him mutter "rubbish" at his own press conference banalities in the cold light of having witnessed (instigated, even) the sorry unfolding of the Altamont tragedy. There was an alleged contract put out on him after he disputed the Hells' Angels' account of the story. He looks what he was, in over his head.

But, as so often on stage and record, it's Charlie Watts, a young William Hartnel playing a Sioux Indian, who is the unacknowledged star of the show. His grave face, an irked near smile of disbelief playing about his lips as one of the Hells Angels explains the carnage as part of a radio phone played back in the cutting room. People high on drugs got too close to their motorbikes. "Well done", Watts deadpans after the biker's lurid account of the revenge meted out. It's the most moving part of the film. Watts is such a mensch.

The climax at Altamont is hideously riveting. The air of menace is tangible even before the Angels arrive - Jagger is punched in the face but seems so medicated that it barely registers. There's an end of the vacation atmosphere that anyone who loves the Sixties and all the progressive aspirations it represents will probably find very sad. Jagger's cries of "sisters and brothers" and "cool it people" squirt from the stage like a bottle of Evian trying to douse a forest fire as the Angels wade into the night-darkened crowd. He seems like an ineffectual master presented with an unruly classroom. Even Richards' more strident petulance - if you cats don't pack it in, we ain't playing - cuts little ice. We watch the horrible slaying of Hunter in slo-mo and share the Stones' shock at the cold facts as they register them once more. He had a gun. And then they stabbed him. He had a gun. And then they stabbed him.

As Ian MacDonald points out in The People's Music, in a way, the Stones had it coming. Their set - 'Sympathy', 'Midnight Rambler', 'Street Fighting Man'et al - "had exacerbation built into it". The irony of the Stones desultory vamp through the "plain nasty" "misogyny" of 'Under my Thumb' suggests to MacDonald the playing out of a long accruing bad karma. The first time I watched the movie, the most poignant moment was the footage at the end of the disconsolate festival goers mooching away from the event as if they're walking out of the glow of the Sixties into the cold reality of the Seventies. It's still effective. But this time around I was less sad for them than relieved.

There's excellent and more pleasant footage elsewhere though - most notably of the Stones listening to playbacks during the sublime session at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio. Keith Richards is caught lying prone, completely transported as he mouths along to the words of 'Wild Horses'. There's more poignancy as the band amble like Beatle cartoons into a Holiday Inn after the Muscle Shoals sessions. They look a band on a high, filled with the buzz of the music and being in a band and being on tour, Jagger and Richards as solid as a rock. So young, and oblivious to what fate had in wait just around the corner.

Article about the film here...

Right, next up: rewatching Godard's Sympathy for the Devil. I got the freebie DVD from the Times the weekend we moved house - still unwatched....

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  1. The thing that shocked me about Gimme Shelter was how closely the cameras managed to capture Meredith Hunter's death. I'd not realised it was actually on film before.

    A few of the other Maysles Brothers' documentaries were shown on BBC4 recently and are definitely worth a look at, if you've not seen them before, especially Grey Gardens.

  2. I'll definitely check their other stuff out Betty. Grey gardens was advertised at the start of my recording of Gimme Shelter. It's taken me this long to watch the recording so I can see why I didn't record the others at the time. Wish I had though...

    (Thanks for not pointing out my mispelling of Maysles too, Bettster)

    Yes, it's quite graphic, isn't it? Also, you spot Meredith Hunter dancing before the stabbing and he just looks as if he's having a whale of a time dancing and that...and then it all goes off. It's quite brilliant film-making though - they just seem to get so many really telling images.

    As a lover of pop music who's more or less my age, you may remember this: there was a fantastic documentary about Gene Vincent touring the UK in the late 60s early 70s, not long before he died. Basically, he's booked into all these really grim working men's clubs and flea pit digs and it's just really sad watching this legendary figure plodding through this really sad entertainment graveyard. It was a Granada film but the Beeb showed it in the early 90s as part of a series of classic rock documentaries. There was another good one on the Kursaal Flyers. I think they showed the Chuck Berry film he did with Keef in the same series. Be pleased to hear from anyone else who watched the Gene Vincent though - I'm beginning to think I've made it up as no one else seems to recall it....

  3. Haven't seen the Gene Vincent documentary, although I'm pretty sure a friend mentioned watching it at the time. You occasionally see live footage of him from around that era which I presume is from that film. The Kursaal Flyers one of course was repeated during the Stiff weekend on BBC4. I wouldn't be surprised if Gene Vincent surfaces on there eventually.

  4. "like a bottle of Evian trying to douse a forest fire"

    Good one Robert. The Grammar School boys from Dartford got a dose of American reality. They learned fast and made the necessary mental adjustments.

  5. Betty - yes, hope so. Didn't spot the Flyers one. Would have liked to see it again.

    Dickster - thanks for that. Just to think, it could've been you!

  6. Close Robert, very close. I see Marrianne got through breast cancer OK. Good for her.

  7. You are so right about that Altamont scene. It is just the contrast which is created between the soft, white shirt that Jagger is wearing and the 'vibe' and then the horror as all of this 'went off'. It is a horrifying moment and you've captured that horror really well.

  8. Godard's Sympathy for the Devil DVD free with The Times is not the full version. They've edited out the bit of Brian looking stoned out of his tree.

    And what's all the stuff about those coloured folks with guns?
    Fuck all that shite, just give me the recording studio documentary.

  9. I think I remember that Gene Vincent documentary. I've been looking for it on teh nets but can't find it. I've seen one reference to it on the Blue Caps site but couldn't follow a link/

  10. Jagger's cries of "sisters and brothers" and "cool it people" - It's almost camp isn't it.

    I love the song "Under my thumb" - some choice guitar riffage, and I don't mind the lyrics.

    I've never seen this footage apart from clips of the obvious. How much is there of the Burritos?