Friday, July 23, 2010
The Maysles Brothers’ film Gimme Shelter (1970) is a very curious and macabre 60s concert film. During a free concert performed by Rolling Stones in 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in California, four audience members are reported to have died. One death in particular was a murder caused by a member of the Hell’s Angels (who happened to be working as security), which was caught on film by the filmmakers. The documentary is a film within a film, as the filmmaker presents the edited footage to members of The Rolling Stones, as the audience tries to gain some perspective or insight in the reaction of Mick Jagger and company. As the director’s camera probes for a human reaction of Mick Jagger, we are left feeling we just witnessed (yet) another performance by Mick. The documentary is a strange experience, because if one knows the fatal result of this ill-conceived free concert, it is truly hard to enjoy the performances of the show. The film builds with warning after warning, and like a mystery or thriller, the film presents foreshadowing moments that will lead to tragedy. The announcer of the concert gives warning to audience members that are hanging on the rafters or loitering on the stage, shots of drugged out audience members streak nakedly through the crowd or have meltdowns on the very stage next to the band, as managers and promoters haggle over the many issues of the free concert. The filmmakers pick and choose the images that build to the climactic chilling moment, which is delivered in an Antonioni (Blow-Up) like manner of instant replay. Yet during this replay, we witness a faked reaction by Mick Jagger, leaving us to wonder if he is capable of real human emotion, or if he is incapable of revealing his true self.
William F. Van Wert’s article “The Hamlet Complex” believes we are watching “lie” or an “artifice as opposed to the truth.” Yet, some blame must be pointed at the filmmakers, who have exploited the tragedy into insight. Up to the point where Mick Jagger is confronted of the murder, the filmmakers have been quite content on presenting Mick as your typical rock star up to that point. Little has been required of Mick outside of his typical performer self, and during the concert Mick does try and calm the audience with threats of not playing. Whether Mick is responsible for the manic level of hysteria is hard to gauge. But the filmmakers take every opportunity to present the uncanny side of the show, where a member of Jefferson Airplane is attacked (reasons are unclear as to why) and the Tina Turner’s performance has got to be one of the strangest sexualized performances in recent memory. When examining the entire film, one has to wonder if the Maysles even wanted a real reaction from Mick, or if they preferred to keep the film cloaked in darkness. When Mick views the film footage, there are moments when he sees himself and smirks at his performance as if he realizes his own projected artifice. Mick’s reaction to the murder is understandably unreal, because he is protecting an image and a personality. Strange that the film he made at the same time was titled Performance (1970), because it is actually more insightful of the real Mick Jagger than Gimme Shelter.