For Reel

Gimme Shelter (1970)
April 20, 2012, 1:10 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Director(s): Albert & David Maysles

Of all of the films to emerge from the New Hollywood movement – including Easy Rider, Head, and Bonnie and Clyde, among others – perhaps none better encapsulates the disillusionment facing youth culture in the late 1960s than Albert and David Maysles’ non-fiction telling of the fateful Altamont Free Concert, Gimme Shelter. The pictures begins, as one might expect a concert documentary to begin, with a lively performance of one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest hits, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. In the next scene, the Maysles’ bring the band into the editing room to watch elements of their production, which includes cryptic references to the deaths that occurred at the concert that the film addresses. After that, a performance from the same Madison Square Garden concert that began the picture is played – this time, however, it is muted by a sense of foreboding, its pleasure no longer so vivid. Anyone could have made a harrowing picture about a spectacle like Altamont, but it is the Maysles’ ability to structure the material that makes Gimme Shelter one of the great American documentaries. Although the filmmakers are often spoken of in terms of naturalism, they were, in fact, quite deliberate and manipulative in the editing room (in the very best of ways). After the horrors of Altamont have concluded and the crowds walk home through the fields, one reflects on the myth perpetrated by Woodstock – that music could bring people together. Altamont was the antithesis of such optimism. If Michael Wadleigh’s important documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music was about people coming together, Gimme Shelter is about people being driven apart. It not only deconstructs the image of the Rolling Stones through its unwillingness to mythologize the band, but it tears apart and exposes the falsity of the 1960s as a “peaceful” era.

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