Gimme Shelter (1970) dir. David Maysles, Albert Maysles, & Charlotte Zwerin


“Jagger, you prick!”

I’ll never forget the first time I watched Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ harrowing 1970 documentary about the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont Speedway concert. It was the first summer I spent in Boston. The Brattle was running a series of classic rock & roll films, and I had won a series pass for correctly identifying the movie in which Elvis Presley plays a Native American (Flaming Star, in case you’re curious). The series was presented in roughly chronological order; I had already caught a matinee of Jailhouse Rock and an electric screening of A Hard Day’s Night. Following that screening, my roommates and I dashed ecstatically from Harvard Square to Central, energized by the youthful rockstar energy on screen.

“Jagger, you prick!”

It stood to reason that a screening of Gimme Shelter would have a less jubilant vibe. Intended as a sort of West Coast Woodstock, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival has become as potent a signifier of the death of ‘60s idealism as the Charles Manson murders and the rash of 27 Club ODs. Poorly planned from the get-go, the decision was made somewhere along the line to install members of the Hells Angels as an ad-hoc security force. This went about as well as you’d expect, culminating in the stabbing death of audience member Meredith Hunter during the Stones’ performance of “Under My Thumb.” Shooting with the same cockeyed detachment they brought to Grey Gardens, the Maysles brothers (and co-director Charlotte Zwerin) document the slow deterioration of the situation, punctuated by some seriously fantastic performance footage (including Jefferson Airplane, Tina Turner, and others, as well as the Stones).

“Jagger, you prick!”

Sitting behind us, alone in his row, was a middle-aged man with a distinctive (if not quite overwhelming) aroma of booze, weed, and body odor. After quietly entering the theater, he watched the film in complete silence… except for any time Mick Jagger appeared on screen, when we would very loudly yell, “Jagger, you prick!” It is worth repeating, again, that Gimme Shelter is a film about the Rolling Stones; we heard this phrase a lot, to the point where it became part of the soundtrack. He didn’t even sound particularly angry about it; he was simply informing the man on screen that he was, indeed, a prick. It wasn’t an accusation, so much as a statement of fact.

He wasn’t wrong, of course. At least in the context of Altamont, Mick Jagger was a prick– or, at the very least, fatally out of touch. The Rolling Stones, in 1969, were about as famous as any humans had been up to that point. Of course the concert was going to be a success, despite the massive lapses in planning. They were the Rolling Stones! As the musicians on the ground realize something is wrong– Bill Weir of the Grateful Dead remarks on the bad vibes, and Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin is literally assaulted by an Angel– the Stones remain vacantly unaware. Even as the situation comes to a head during the Stones’ set, Jagger’s attempts to quell the crowd come off as ludicrously out of touch (“Bruthas and sistas, you’ve got to cool ooouuut!”). It’s only in the film’s finale, as the band reviews the footage in the Maysles’ editing suite, that the reality seems to sink in. That final freeze frame of Jagger’s face, the horror of comprehension finally apparent, symbolizes the end of an era just as potently as the actual murder that precedes it.

What a prick.

Gimme Shelter
dir. David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
91 min.

Screens Thursday, 7/21, 7:00pm @ Coolidge Corner Theatre
Part of the ongoing series: Cinema Jukebox

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