Maysles Brothers Release ‘Gimme Shelter,’ One Year After Altamont

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November 19, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 47

By Howard Smith

IT WAS A LONG WAY from Woodstock to Altamont. Knowing upfront what happened at Altamont gave a grim undertow to “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles Brothers’ documentary about the Stones’ last American tour. It opens at the Plaza Theatre on December 6, the first anniversary of the actual event.


The movie is a montage of contrasting and harmonizing visual images — minor scuffles and brutal fist-for-alls; bad trips and crazed fans; “Sympathy for the Devil” and Hell’s Angels; Melvin Belli and Sam Cutler; interviews and editing sessions; giving a performance and making a movie; warm booze and lots of dope; Tina Turner giving musical head to a microphone in a sensual, erotic scene that contrasts with the rest of the strangely sexless film; the flash of a knife and the shadow of a gun; naked bodies and big black boots; weird, tough dudes and a million gentle freaks; fop-evil fashions and death-skull jacket patches. Dominating the movie’s consciousness and giving a coherence to all the images are Jagger’s mock-brooding, the music, and death.

It’s knowing about the killing, and waiting for it to happen on the screen that gives the film its energy and thrust. And when the murder scene comes, there isn’t so much the rush of shock as the gratification of curiosity.

“Gimme Shelter” is the other side of “Performance.” Here Jagger is the idolized demon-performer, alienated from his worshipping fans, before he reaches that burnt-out point when he has no more to give. The only thing Jagger reveals in this movie is his total isolation. His mood is tired and serious. In this “performance” he plays opposite the Hell’s Angels, whose gut reactions contrast with his own impassivity. He always seems to be playing to the camera, and only direct physical confrontation with violence evokes a natural emotional response and makes him seem real.

Altamont was a coda for the ’60s. It was the last real “scene” of the decade — somehow not a very fitting end to the decade that brought us flower-power and peace groups. But perhaps it was really a premature beginning of the ’70s. If so, the refrain of the title song may be prophetic — “it’s just a shot away.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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