As the culmination of their 1969 U.S. tour, the Rolling Stones offered a free concert at AltamontSpeedway in northern California. Three hundred thousand attended, from as far away as New York. It was only months after Woodstock, and the same optimistic spirit of peace and love was anticipated. There was a serpent in the garden, however: the Hell’s Angels, self-appointed, apparently, as the enforcers of law and order at the event. One member of the thuggish motorcycle gang stabbed to death an eighteen-year-old African-American youth named Meredith Hunter, who had aimed a gun at him in response to what provocation we still do not know. The stabbing was caught in Gimme Shelter, a documentary account of the concert and other elements of the Stones tour. The Maysles brothers, David and Albert, and Charlotte Zwerin—the team responsible for the brilliant Salesman (1968)—co-directed.
The Stones’ front man, Mick Jagger, is of course an awesome performer—at the time of Gimme Shelter, the world’s greatest. Authenticity and emotional honesty redeem his raw insolence from its pampered veneer, and the sheer fluidity of his gestures and moves, such as his flawlessly gyrating frame, composes a commanding presence while leavening its smug self-absorption. Early on, a fine cut adds to the achievement of his persona the poetic suggestion that Jagger is sufficiently powerful to be able to overleap the restrictions of time and space. In daylight, at the speedway, bareheaded Jagger grabs an Uncle Sam hat from an attendant crowd; cut; at night, onstage before the roaring crowd, Jagger places the hat on top of his head. Here, in perfect Clairity, the magic of cinema translates into the power of Jagger; but the translation does not last. Jagger finds himself unable to control his increasingly unruly young audience; and then there is the stabbing, which the Stones revisit by watching the material at the concert that the filmmakers had shot. Reverse; forward; the moment of assault: the magic of cinema now translated into (among other things) the powerlessness of Jagger either to have prevented the original occurrence or to reclaim the lost young life. The last shot of Jagger that we see is a freeze frame of his drained, possibly shellshocked face, his sultry features emptied of their sensuality, their certainty. In his twenties, a superstar has learned his humanity by confronting its limits—as have we, vicariously.
Is this the best, most accomplished film ever, as Haskell Wexler seemed to think? Well, no; but it’s good. Damn good.
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