David and Albert Maysles possessed two qualities essential to being a great documentarian. For one, they possessed an endless curiosity about human nature. They were fascinated by the complexities and contradictions of people, whether reflected in the gothic house of horrors that were the psyches of Little and Big Edie Bouvier Beale in previous Movie Of The Week Grey Gardens, or Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, with whom they made a series of films over a period of decades.
The Maysles were similarly blessed with an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time with cameras rolling. This was never more true than when the brothers’ cameras peered into an ocean of stoned, often unclothed humanity at the Rolling Stones’ notorious 1969 concert at Altamont to see a black man named Meredith Hunter get stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels who were working security for the show in exchange for free beer.
The Maysles weren’t the only filmmakers to direct movies about the Stones. Through the years, Michael Apted, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, and even Jean-Luc Godard made documentaries about the Stones. But only the Maysles’ film occupies a place high in the pantheon of great rock films. Part of that is a matter of luck, if you can call being at the scene of a crime at the very moment when the utopian dreams of the 1960s counterculture died “luck.”
Hunter’s killing changes the entire context of Gimme Shelter. It becomes less a concert where someone died than a killing with a concert awkwardly happening around it. From the very first images of the ashen-faced Rolling Stones watching footage of the concert—where what are generally referred to as any number of “scuffles” eventually devolve into the most famous stabbing in pop music—death haunts the film.
Being a rock-’n’-roll star is a ridiculous endeavor under the best of circumstances. But the swaggering, peacocking, androgynous, look-at-me style of rock stardom practiced and perfected by Mick Jagger can’t help but look particularly juvenile, even surreal, against a backdrop of life and death. Jagger does the best he can, and to be honest there’s not much he could do, but he still comes off like someone boogying at a funeral.
Then again, Jagger strikes a curiously powerless figure throughout Gimme Shelter. In the concert performances that make up much of the early part of the movie, The Maysles film Jagger largely in close-up. This has the effect of isolating him both from the rest of the band and from the crowd, of making him seem not potent and powerful, but lonely and a bit lost. He may be the most charismatic man in rock at the height of his dark powers, but in Gimme Shelter, he’s one strangely unsure voice in the darkness, a tiny little man in a bubble that has nothing and everything to do with the tens of thousands of people drinking and smoking and fucking and even listening to music hundreds, even thousands of feet away.
Obviously the film benefits from the clear hindsight history provides. But the Maysles make it clear that the festival was riddled with bad vibes, miscalculation, and a combustible mix of elements, many not at all devoted to peace and love, that made violence if not inevitable, then at least likely. Even The Grateful Dead, no strangers to the Hell’s Angels themselves, gauge the temperature of the crowd and take a helicopter out before performing.
Marty Balin of Jefferson Starship gets smacked by the Hell’s Angels, too, but then again, if you had a chance to beat up Marty Balin, wouldn’t you? In one of his many deluded peace-and-love manifestos, Jagger says he wants to hold the Altamont concert as an illustration to the world that when left to their own devices, people could experience freedom and connection and love. Instead, his concert proved the opposite: That if left to their own devices (or worse, the discretion of a drunken and belligerent Hell’s Angels), tragedy could, and would, ensue.
Gimme Shelter consequently has the strange double infamy of being at once one of the finest concert films ever made, a movie that captures The Rolling Stones and earlier act Tina Turner at their peak, as well as a moratorium for the dreams and hopes of the 1960s. Early in the film, someone compares the movement of youth culture scrambling from all over the country to San Francisco to the movement of lemmings. Lemmings, perhaps not coincidentally, was also the name of a legendary National Lampoon parody of Woodstock that ended with the audience committing mass suicide. There was no mass suicide at Altamont, but one death was enough to signal the end of an era, and the Maysles were on hand to document it and try to figure out what it meant, both to the gob-smacked Rolling Stones and the culture at large.
From Grey Gardens to Salesman to their films with Christo, the Maysles captured something singular and important about the world we live in and the artists who strive to balance their creative muses with the insatiable demands of commerce. Albert, who died on March 5, some 28 years after his brother and partner’s death, won the National Medal Of Arts in 2013, but he did not need a lifetime-achievement award to let him know that he had created a body of work that will stand the test of time, and provide posterity with a glimpse into what it meant to be human and creative in the 20th century.