And though it never came to that at Woodstock, it’s not hard to imagine that, if it had, everyone in charge would have been just as unprepared to deal with violence or negative vibes. What Altamont and Gimme Shelter expose are the limitations of this generation and this mentality, the way the ethos of peace and love espoused by the musicians and concertgoers falls apart when confronted by those who don’t share those beliefs, who don’t play by the same rules. It’s ugly and disastrous, and particularly heartbreaking when juxtaposed against the sense of possibility and hopefulness and enthusiasm that was everywhere at Woodstock. Woodstock is the dream of the ’60s, and Gimme Shelter is its dark flipside.
JB: The word I scribbled down while watching Gimme Shelter is “buzzkill.” These two films are both fascinating on their own, but as a double feature they’re absolutely incredible. You couldn’t write a greater contrast in moods. Woodstock is defined by producers who happily lose money, by townspeople who help feed the kids who are overrunning their quiet farmland, by musicians awed by the spectacle of peace around them. And then there’s Gimme Shelter, which chronicles a concert now synonymous with violence, which shows Mick Jagger getting sloppily punched by a fan before he even gets to his trailer at Altamont, and which, prior to all of that, allows us to be privy to negotiations in which lawyer Melvin Belli (yes, Zodiac fans, that Melvin Belli) tries to broker a deal to get the Stones to play at any San Francisco venue that will take them. It’s as if the producers of both concerts made a deal with the devil to have Woodstock triumph and had to pay their tab at Altamont.
But Gimme Shelter is a buzzkill even if you haven’t watched Woodstock, precisely because of its structure. Gimme Shelter begins with a typically lively performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” at a previous concert. But then it goes inside the editing room, where the Stones gather round and listen to a San Francisco radio personality talking about Altamont in the past tense. “There were four births, four deaths and an awful lot of scuffles reported,” he says. The Stones listen intently, grimacing here, smiling there. Their faces are mostly mournful. Charlie Watts is especially shaken up. After listening to a Hell’s Angel named Sonny blasting the band and defending the Hell’s Angels for kicking some hippie ass, Watts adopts this blank stare as if he’s searching the depths of his memory; he thinks that perhaps he met Sonny that night, but he can’t be sure. In any case, he responds to the tape of the radio broadcast as if he’s been witness to a profound tragedy. His is the kind of expression you would expect on the face of a teenager who has just learned that his best friend walked into the school cafeteria and opened fire with a machine gun. “Oh, dear, what a shame,” he says.
From here, the film cuts back to the Stones on stage, pre-Altamont again, as effervescent as ever. But the sense of dread never goes away. If Woodstock is a high, Altamont is a bad trip.
EH: You’re right that the structure of Gimme Shelter dictates its mood. The film follows the Stones through a few of the shows leading up to Altamont, and their performances are frequently exciting and electrifying: the band was in top form at this point, coming off of recent masterpiece Beggars Banquet, with Let It Bleed (released not even a month after Altamont), Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street still ahead of them. In the film, they perform chugging, high-energy versions of signature songs like “Honky Tonk Women” and “Street-Fighting Man,” the latter song especially ironic in light of its celebration of violence and aggression. They perform a heartfelt run through Robert Johnson’s ragged ballad “Love In Vain,” with Jagger’s voice straining around the lyrics, cracking and groaning with bluesy depths of feeling. Musically, the film is frequently exhilarating, as the Stones at their best couldn’t fail to be. Even when everything’s falling apart at Altamont, and the Stones have to keep halting their songs as violence erupts in the audience gathered around the stage, there’s a sense of great music struggling to come together, of this energy being translated, sporadically and unpredictably, into the band’s desperate attempts to get through a song in this oppressive atmosphere.
And yet, the filmmakers (Albert and David Maysles along with editor Charlotte Zwerin) never allow these performances to stand alone. Any sense of exhilaration or power in the music is always tempered by the aura of dread and inevitability hanging over the film. By opening with Charlie Watts’ reaction to the Altamont disaster, the filmmakers provide a context for everything that comes next, foreshadowing the tragic end of this tour. The scenes with Melvin Belli further diffuse any excitement in the pre-Altamont concert footage, detailing the mind-numbing negotiations behind the tour, the machinations of the band’s legal team as they try to secure a venue. The film makes it all but impossible to focus on the music, and in that sense it’s very much like Woodstock, in that both films attempt to reach beyond the music, to establish the broader context and social situation in which these artists exist. The difference is that Woodstock reaches beyond the music to exalt the attitude and the idealistic vision represented by the event, while Gimme Shelter provides context in order to reveal the inadequacy of the musicians’ and producers’ attempts to diffuse the violence at Altamont, as well as perhaps the inadequacy of their reactions after the fact.
In my view, the film is undoubtedly successful at establishing this context, often portraying the Rolling Stones as hopelessly lost and clueless amidst all this chaos. Watts’ “what a shame,” along with the band’s collective stunned silence when the Maysles brothers play back footage of the off-stage murder of an audience member by a Hell’s Angel, suggests that the band has no idea how to respond, no idea what to think of this disaster for which they are at least partially responsible. So it’s puzzling that so much of the initial response to the film when it was first released centered around its supposed status as an empty, Stones-sponsored spectacle. Pauline Kael essentially called it a snuff film and asserted that the film’s “facts are manufactured for the cinema,” and countless other critics of the time more or less agreed that the film freed the Stones of accountability. I don’t really understand that complaint; to me, the film seems pretty unsparing in its portrayal of everyone involved in Altamont, creating an eloquent and heartbreaking rebuttal of Woodstock’s naïve idea that peace and love can overcome violence and chaos.
JB: Kael’s finger-pointing is fascinating on a number of levels. For starters, there appear to be several things that she got wrong based on vague or inaccurate reporting of Altamont in Rolling Stone. But on top of that, there appear to be the things Kael got wrong because she wanted the facts to line up with her hypothesis. In a response to Kael’s 1970 review, Gimme Shelter’s filmmakers took the critic to task for writing as fact things that they had specifically refuted in an interview. Meanwhile, the filmmakers also pointed out that some of the arguments Kael makes in her effort to demonstrate the Stones’ partial culpability were in fact supported by, and possibly wholly derived from, a film she accuses of being an effort to “whitewash” the Stones and the filmmakers of responsibility: “All the evidence she uses in her analysis of [the Stones’] disturbing relationship to their audience is evidence supplied by the film, by the structure of the film which tries to render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger’s double self, of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even the pathos of his final powerlessness. These are the filmmakers’ insights and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery.”
Kael’s original review and the filmmakers’ response can be found in their entirety here. And what strikes me reading both pieces is their tendency for overstatement. Kael goes too far in her implications that the Stones themselves designed Altamont as a cinematic spectacle, at one point loosely comparing Gimme Shelter to Triumph of the Will. But then the filmmakers go too far in suggesting that Kael pins the killing on them, conveniently ignoring that she opens her review by saying that “the violence and murder weren’t scheduled” and that she later observes that “it’s impossible to know how much movie-making itself is responsible for those consequences.” (That said, Kael’s acknowledgements seem to be offered merely as loopholes for libel-avoidance. She never directly accuses the Stones of murder by extension, just like the folks at Fox News are careful to never directly call Obama a Muslim, but in the meantime that’s the theme of the narrative. If I were the filmmakers, I’d be pissed too.) So to some degree Kael vs. Gimme Shelter is evidence that even 40 years ago, like today, a film’s big picture could be lost in the controversy of tangential issues, such as Kael being miffed that Gimme Shelter isn’t forthright in detailing that the Stones themselves helped to finance the film (an omission that, Kael’s right, makes the “free” concert at Altamont a little less magnanimous).
All of that leads me here: If the controversy of Kael vs. Gimme Shelter is ageless, Kael’s specific objections are, for the most part, quaintly antiquated. The essential thrust of her objection is an implication that an event that came to be solely because it was going to be filmed is passed off as documentary fact. Whereas Woodstock was going to happen whether or not cameras showed up, the concert at Altamont was arranged precisely so it could be filmed, and even though the events themselves weren’t choreographed, and even though no one could have predicted the stabbing that made the event so memorable, Kael roughly argues that Gimme Shelter suffers from a kind of original sin that disqualifies it from being heralded as a cinematic achievement of the documentary genre. To spark this kind of reaction today it takes Casey Affleck filming Joaquin Phoenix—perhaps in character, perhaps not—for I’m Still Here, which might indeed be all performance and no documentary “truth” whatsoever. (In fact, though that film was released with its veracity uncertain, Casey Affleck has since confirmed that it was all a staged act.) Today, in this reality-TV dominated, YouTube-obsessed world in which our political leaders are more attuned to creating cinematic narratives than to outlining their policies (think of Obama’s famous Roman columns address at the Democratic National Convention), we now expect the camera’s presence to create as many events as it captures surreptitiously (“documenting” without influencing).
And so for me it’s ironic that Kael implies that much of Gimme Shelter is a pose, because watching it today I find it refreshingly unaffected. One of my favorite shots in the entire film comes in a scene in which the Stones relax and listen to a tape of their recording of “Wild Horses.” As the song plays, Keith Richards (who is credited in the film as “Keith Richard”) reclines and casually taps his boot to the music. Today, it would be hard to watch a modern version of that scene without feeling that the artist in question was playing to the camera. But in pre-reality-TV 1970, Richards’ enjoyment of the music has an earnestness that I find almost overwhelmingly touching. And I could say the same of Jagger’s feeble attempts to stop the violence at Altamont.
EH: I’m not sure Altamont was staged just to be filmed—the Salon article cited above suggests it was, at least partly, a response to complaints about the Stones’ generally high concert ticket prices—but regardless, I think you’re right that this film comes off as especially unaffected and natural in comparison to today’s concepts of “documentary” and “reality.” The film may have been a key factor in deciding to put the concert together in the first place, but I don’t get the sense that the Maysles brothers manipulated or staged much if anything that subsequently happened in front of their cameras. I took note of that “Wild Horses” scene as well, and it really does achieve a sense of casual observation that, in many ways, would be impossible today, when everyone—particularly everyone who’s in the public eye—is so hyper-aware whenever a camera’s nearby. It’s a great moment, with the camera zooming in on Richards’ boot as he taps his toes in time with the music. The laidback, fly-on-the-wall perspective of moments like that is especially affecting in the context of this band that otherwise seems to be putting up such a front of performance and posing, from Jagger’s sexualized antics to the studied intensity of Richards with his guitar.
I think that’s also why it’s so stunning when the band’s attitude collapses when confronted by violence at Altamont, and why it’s so affecting to watch them watch the slowed-down murder footage from the concert. There’s something destabilizing about seeing the performers’ masks drop, to see them revealed as awkward, uncertain, shaken humans when faced with a tragedy that they’re almost pathetically unprepared to deal with. This theme of performance versus reality is carried through the film even when the violence at Altamont isn’t the central topic. At one point, the film features a song by Ike and Tina Turner, though I don’t think Ike ever actually appears in the frame: the camera seems transfixed by Tina Turner in her short skirt, lewdly caressing the mic, projecting raw heat in her every motion and her every word. Turner’s raw, sexy performance makes Mick Jagger’s prancing antics look comparatively tame and contrived; it’s the difference between the real thing and a staged pantomime act. Kael may have made that difference the essence of her criticism of the film, but in fact the film’s own text embodies that dialectic, implicitly questioning and examining the issues of authenticity that revolve around both Altamont and the Rolling Stones.
JB: I think we should be careful not to suggest that Tina Turner’s “real” performance is entirely free from calculation or stagecraft, but relatively speaking, and in the big picture, you’re right. Gimme Shelter intentionally exposes that there’s a difference between the private Rolling Stones and the public Rolling Stones. In fact, one scene is quite blatant in this respect. Early in the film, after we’ve watched the band digesting the post-Altamont radio broadcast, there’s a scene in which a pre-Altamont Mick Jagger is questioned at a press conference about the band’s current state of satisfaction. “Do you mean sexually, or philosophically?” Jagger responds, a huge smile on his face, soaking in this moment under the spotlight. Both, the reporter responds. Jagger then delivers a rambling answer that concludes with him assessing the band this way: “Financially dissatisfied. Sexually satisfied. Philosophically trying.” From there the film cuts back to Jagger in the editing studio, watching this archival footage. Jagger is very much not “on” here. His face is blank. He seems not to comprehend that the camera nearby that’s watching Jagger watch himself will eventually produce an audience as real as the gaggle of reporters that he delighted in entertaining at the press conference. Upon seeing his response to the reporter, Jagger mumbles this as an assessment: “Rubbish.” I’m not sure how Gimme Shelter could more clearly articulate that dichotomy between genuineness and performance than it does in that moment, or, for that matter, in the scenes in which the band goes into giggle fits watching clips of their previous performances, clearly entertained by their public theatricalities.
Having said that, to me what’s so riveting about the concert at Altamont isn’t what happens out in the audience, although the growing sense of doom is palpable. What’s fascinating is that while things spin out of control we see the Stones, or at least Jagger, struggling between that private and public self. When Jagger pleads with the audience to “be cool,” the doubtfulness and trepidation in his voice are the private Jagger shining through, and yet at the same time Jagger is trying to use his status as a rock icon to suggest some sort of parental authority or God-like control. As things continue to spill out of hand you can sense Jagger realizing, as if for the first time, that in fact he can’t control the audience, and that celebrity idolatry only goes so far. And so this is probably the perfect time to turn our attention to Stop Making Sense. Because while Gimme Shelter is defined by all that a band can’t control, the 1984 Talking Heads concert—actually several edited together to appear as one—is an appreciation of onstage choreography.
EH: Yes, Stop Making Sense represents quite a contrast against both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. While those films are constantly pushing beyond the music, encompassing external contexts and attempting to express ideas about the culture and society of the time, Stop Making Sense is so singularly focused on what’s happening onstage that there’s hardly any glimpse even of the audience until near the end of the film. As you say, it’s about the “onstage choreography,” to such an extent that it resembles a live music video, as the band’s stage show—put together by frontman David Byrne—involves minimalist design and clever conceptual routines that entertain without ever becoming the kind of flashy spectacle that detracts from the music itself. Indeed, the concept that drives the film from the beginning seems designed to focus attention wholly on the music, on the way that a band’s sound is assembled from its constituent parts.
For the first number, “Psycho Killer,” Byrne performs solo with just an acoustic guitar and a tape deck that’s supposedly the source of the simple drum machine pattern that accompanies his playing and singing. It’s a great performance of one of the band’s best songs, enhanced by Byrne’s intense stare and studied awkwardness, like his stumbling response to some machine gun-like beats during a break, a staggering walk that Stephanie Zacharek compared to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s death scene at the end of Breathless, an apt comparison in light of Godard’s fascination with musical/visual convergences and disjunctions. Then, with each subsequent song, another member of the band joins Byrne onstage, starting with bassist Tina Weymouth for the bittersweet ballad “Heaven,” and eventually culminating with the core quartet plus two dancers/backup singers, and three additional musicians, with most of the extra cast coming from a background in R&B and P-Funk. It’s a brilliant conceit, building up the typical Talking Heads sound from sparse acoustic-guitar-and-a-beat minimalism into the lively, ethnically allusive density of their studio albums. The progression is done in a completely transparent way, too, with stage crews wheeling out props and setting up even in the middle of songs, gradually adding the necessary instruments to what had started as a bare, Spartan stage.
This is thrilling, viscerally engaging filmmaking, starting with just the shadow of Byrne’s guitar neck on the floor of the stage, then following his feet as he steps up to the mic and places the boombox beside him, and finally panning up, past his guitar, to his gangly neck and wide eyes, his head bobbing hypnotically with the music. With each subsequent song, the sound deepens and grows more complicated, with Weymouth’s insistently rubbery bass eventually joined by the additional guitar lines of ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison and an increasingly complex rhythm section. Director Jonathan Demme maintains what seems to be a documentary objectivity, just watching as the theatrical stage show unfolds, but his darting, carefully tracking camerawork must have required as much planning as the show itself: the camera is as much a part of the choreography here as anything that happens onstage. At one point during “Psycho Killer,” Byrne even dances at the camera, staring into the lens as his steps carry him towards it and then away again, off to stagger around the perimeter of the stage with the camera in pursuit. After the questions about documentary integrity raised by Gimme Shelter, and the interest in social over musical matters in Woodstock, it’s refreshing to deal with a film that has no pretensions about its role: the simple art of presenting a great, entertaining stage show where the music is, as it should be, given first billing.
JB: Well, sort of. I mean, sure, there’s no question that compared to Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense is stripped down to its musical core. But I’m still not sure music is what’s given first billing here. Because to me this is a celebration of presentation, of performance itself, more than it is a celebration or observation of music. I think your praise for Demme is appropriate, but in this case the one with cinematic vision is Byrne, who is credited as the live show’s creator, and who, without question, is absolutely aware of his show’s visual aesthetics. This concert, in its own mostly spare way, is really as choreographed as anything Michael Jackson ever did—a reality that comes across not so much when Byrne illuminates the stage with a living room lamp or dons that trademark oversized suit but rather when he performs “Life During Wartime,” which begins with a seemingly spontaneous act of running in place and then transitions into some clearly practiced dance moves, one of which makes it look like Byrne is trying to regurgitate a frog while his arms thrust upward as if he’s a marionette.