“Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question,” the iconic American documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles said, “it’s trying to capture life as it is.” Albert and his brother David Maysles made over 50 films together, including the Oscar-nominated Christo’s Valley Curtain and Grey Gardens, which is considered a landmark in American cinema. They developed a documentary style in which scripts, interviews and voice-overs were eschewed for a more fly-on-the-wall, unstructured approach. Albert died this month at the age of 88.
The obits led me to one of their best-known films – Gimme Shelter. Gimme Shelter, which the Maysles brothers directed along with Charlotte Zwerin, follows the Rolling Stones on their 1969 U.S. concert tour, which ended in disaster – a free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway, during which there were four births and four deaths, including the stabbing of a young man, who was carrying a gun. The man is stabbed to death on camera. The assailant is a member of the Hells Angels who provided security at the concert and were paid in beer.
Altamont came to be dubbed as ‘the concert that ended the Sixties.’ Gimme Shelter was commissioned by the Stones and heavily criticized when it released in 1970. Vincent Canby at the New York Times described it as ‘very depressing’ and Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker: The violence and murder wasn’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema verite jackpot. Forty-five years later, the film still has the power to shock. To begin with, there’s the sheer beauty of Mick Jagger – his ferocious sexuality encapsulates a world without rules. When he sings ‘I can’t get no satisfaction,’ it’s hypnotizing. You begin to understand why approximately 300,000 kids trekked there to partake in this frenzied feast.
What also comes through is the toxic cocktail of arrogance and horrific mismanagement that allowed the tragedy to occur. Gimme Shelter is, in equal parts, troubling and fascinating. Find time for this nostalgia trip.