Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ documentary on the Rolling Stones, has been named “the most harrowing rock ‘n’ roll movie ever made.” Critics, especially around the film’s release, considered both the Maysles and the Rolling Stones complicit in the murders at the Altamont Speedway. During the concert (and therefore the film) there were 850 injured, 2 dead in a hit and run, one drowned, and Meredith Hunter was killed by a Hell’s Angel after he pulled a gun. This murder became the central event of the film, and is the climax that the film builds around. The careful structuring of the film is perhaps the reason it was thought to exploit events or even stage them for the benefit of the camera. The murder seems the inevitable conclusion of the film, raising questions about the ethics of documentary and the media in general.
Gimme Shelter begins with a photo shoot that cuts straight to a concert at Madison Square Garden on the Stones’ 1969 US Tour setting up the mold for a typical rock documentary. The filmmakers break this mold revealing the Stones in the editing room, viewing an early version of the film. We briefly see David Maysles as he tells Mick that the shots of them in the editing room will be useful because they can cut from that to anything anywhere in the film, revealing the process of filmmaking and a bit of the filmmakers themselves, though their role is only suggested not overtly integrated into the film. These shots in the editing room become a thread of self-reflexivity throughout the film, reminding the viewer that this is a film and commenting as well on the act of viewing. It also reveals the Stones reaction to their own representation. Using the editing room as the spine the first half of the film moves between footage of the Madison Square Garden concert, the set-up for the Altamont (Mick in press conferences, the lawyer and organizers who set it up, etc.) and the Stones’ down time in the recording studio and at the hotel. The second half of the film begins with a tracking shot from a helicopter over a street flooded with people and lined with cars, and continues, focusing more on the fans and the chaos that begins to erupt at the Altamont, leading to the Rolling Stones’ performance and the murder of Meredith Hunter.
The murder is introduced immediately and hangs over the rest of the film with a sense of impending doom. Closely framed shots of Mick give the film a tight, almost claustrophobic feel. The viewer is uncomfortably close to the action, implying a complicity in the murder we know is coming. Extreme close-ups on Mick’s lips or Keith Richards’ worn out boots have a dehumanizing effect, though not painting them as villains it makes them a symbol of rock and roll decadence and indicts their playful fooling around as irresponsibility and naïveté that leads to the tragedy. For example, Mick’s assertion that the free concert will set an “example for how people can behave in large gatherings.” A shot of Mick delightedly clapping his hands after listening to “Wild Horses” in the context of the film becomes disturbing because “we know, almost from the beginning, what happens at the end. And this advance knowledge creates an undercurrent of dread that pervades even the most carefree sequences.” Though the Stones had no way of knowing then what would occur a few days later “the violence at Altamont, being completely unexpected, came afterwards to seem inevitable” especially in the structure of the film. Thus, these carefree moments in contrast to the violence we know is coming feels inappropriate and somehow wrong.
The film “begins with innocence” but as the film moves along the crowd pulls the focus off the Rolling Stones becoming more violent and disturbed as the film progresses. During the first song the camera moves between close shots of Mick, crowd shots, and shots from the crowd’s point of view. The camera places us with the fans and we watch Mick from within the crowd. When we come back to the concert after the scene in the editing room the energy is up, fans seems a little crazier, the camera more frantic moving in zooms and pans, with shots from behind the Stones that reveal the scope of the crowd. From there we see the build up to the Altamont, Mick talks about it at a press conference, the lawyers and the organizers are setting it up, we see the Stones in the studio and at their hotel, they get into a helicopter, and then the film cuts back to the concert. It is a slow number shot in slow motion with the sound disconnected from the image. The only connection is between Mick and the crowd who move together in slow motion to the music. It is a beautiful sequence superimposing images of Mick onto one another, yet it has a weirdly disturbing effect, and suggests for the first time “[Mick’s] sense of control—of himself and the thousands who hang on his every gesture and sound.” This feeling of control explains both why Mick thought the murders could never happen, and why the Stones were blamed for them. The film continues with more build up towards the Altamont, telling the size of the crowd expected and the intentions behind the concert. When we return to the stage at Madison Square Garden we see, for the first time in the film, fans jumping onstage, trying to touch Mick and having to be pulled away. The crowd is shot in clearer focus and more brightly lit, seeming almost to overpower Mick at times, like a force. When we next come back to the concert, the first shot is of the crowd instead of Mick. From there we cut to the Altamont where the fans take over the film. We wait for the Stones to take the stage with the fans, watching them become more and more drugged out and disturbing. Sometimes they are shot in fast motion, giving them an unreal and threatening quality. The first thing that happens when the Stones arrive at Altamont is “a kid ran up to Mick, said “I hate you,” and hit him in the face.” The sense of chaos grows as drugged out fans begin to freak out, we see a brief shot of someone covered in blood. The lead singer of Jefferson Airplane is knocked out by a Hell’s Angel. Then the Stones take the stage and all hell breaks loose. This subtle manipulation of the portrayal of the fans is part of what gives the film its feeling of inevitability. As the fans and Hell’s Angels become more threatening the only conclusion is violence.
These threads: the organizers, the Stones, and also the fans, come together when the murder is revealed. Like the Stones we cannot see what happens at first. The filmmakers have to show it to us (and the Stones) frozen on the image of the knife, and then again on the gun, and both must be pointed out to us to be made clear. This raises the question: How do you know in the moment what you have captured on film? Is it only later that the filmmakers discover what they have shot? And then how do they deal with it? Zwerin and the Maysles’ answer seems to be to center the film around it. Ignoring the murder and making a simple rock documentary, showing only the concert and footage preceding the Altamont, would be irresponsible. Considering that everyone knew what happened at the Altamont they would expect the film to deal with it. The Maysles stepped up, creating a film that addresses the events, the implied complicity of the Stones in creating the atmosphere for the event and witnessing it, suggests the filmmakers’ own complicity in it, and implicates the viewer as well in watching it. “Seeing Gimme Shelter today, I shudder to realize that I contributed to, and embraced, that chaos. Yet, like Mick and Charlie watching the raw footage, I can’t escape the fact: I was there, I did embrace the chaos.” Simply by witnessing the event, being there and “embracing the chaos,” even the viewer is made to feel complicit in the murder.
There were many negative reactions to the film, critically and otherwise. A notorious article in The New Yorker slammed the film as “an opportunistic snuff film, essentially saying that the filmmakers were complicit in the murder by having photographed it and subsequently profited from its theatrical release.” Sonny Barger, the Hell’s Angel who blames the events on Mick who used the Angel’s as “dupes,” indicts the Rolling Stones for having delayed their entrances to drive the crowd into a frenzy. The film, however, shows Mick helplessly begging the crowd to “be cool” and stop fighting. He appeals to the hippie ideal of everyone being one and “brothers and sisters” in vain, finally just imploring the crowd to sit down so they can continue playing. Even as the film implies complicity it has sympathy for the Stones. The film medium itself encourages identification and sympathy. Like the Stones we are powerless to control what is unfolding on the screen. Perhaps this sympathy is why the film was seen to absolve the Stones of guilt, like a paid for propaganda of innocence.
The question of ethics lies not in interference with events or manufacturing of them but instead in the concept of what is permissible to be shown. Is making a film about the Altamont an exploitation of the event and the victims or does it satisfy a need to know for the public? Is the privacy of the individual or the public’s right to know more important? Pryluck writes that “the right to privacy is the right to decide how much, to whom, and when disclosures about one’s self are to be made. There are some topics that one discusses with confidants; other thoughts are not disclosed to anyone; finally there are those private things that one is unwilling to consider even in the most private moments.” Though revealing private thoughts is not an issue in the film (aside from perhaps Mick’s reaction to the film and the murder in the editing room, though that does not reveal much of his personal thoughts either) the question is should a murder be shown and profited from?
I cannot answer this question on my own, but I think the film raises an important question that extends beyond the field of documentary into the media and the news. In the words of Anthony DeCurtis in his article “‘Gimme Shelter’ Goes Through the Past Darkly”:
As far as the media was concerned, [the Altamont] was the rock & roll Columbine, an occasion in which meaningless violence somehow suggested Hydra-headed meanings, with each new theory delivering few answers and inspiring only more fevered theorizing.
Since then the horror of Columbine has been extended to the shooting at Virginia Tech, not to mention September 11th. In the days, months, and years following the tragedy news stations were glutted with images of the Twin Towers burning, people running in smoke filled streets, videos taken from cell phones with the sound of gunshots, and specifically videos (like those from the shooters in Columbine) made by the shooter featuring himself with guns and blaming his actions on the rest of society. These tragedies become an obsession for the news stations and the viewers, used as a tool to get higher ratings. The exploitation of these tragedies seems to go beyond a “right to know” which could be satisfied by giving the facts, and extends to a morbid fascination that is almost insatiable. Part of the appeal of Gimme Shelter is exactly this fascination and the desire to know, to be present at the Altamont, and to see the murder unfold is what makes the viewer complicit. The question remains where do we draw the line?