Saturday, March 08, 2008

Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles, 1970
Sympathy for the Devil, Jean-Luc Godard, 1968

The Rolling Stones have provided the subject of nearly a dozen films—some legendary and some falling into obscurity—still captivating filmmakers to this day: in April Martin Scorsese will release Shine a Light, a career-spanning documentary that focuses on their recent Bigger Bang Tour. There’s just something about them that draws people in (even now, in their geriatric stages): their charisma, their sexual energy, some intangible, as-yet-indefinable quality.

Gimme Shelter grew out of the Maysles brothers’ desire to cover the Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour, but ended up focusing on that tour’s culmination: the Altamont Free Festival, a concert outside of San Francisco that the band organized, and which has since gone down in infamy as the symbolic end of an era. The documentary is structured as a framed story, moving back and forth in time between footage of the notorious concert and the band’s reactions to witnessing said footage. Also included are the preparations made in setting up the show, such as the difficulty in securing a location, especially one with ample parking—the film contains a scene shot from a helicopter that pans over the miles-long stretch of cars leading up to the raceway.

I’d never realized that Altamont happened in December, which strikes me as an odd time of year to hold an outdoor concert—despite the Bay Area’s slightly milder weather conditions, people can be seen draped in blankets. Perhaps the wintry conditions contributed in part to the hostile atmosphere, although it certainly was not the only factor, not even the most significant.

Organizing a free concert attended by hundreds of thousands of people seems difficult in itself; it becomes even more complicated when you consider that the attendees will for the most part behave...eccentrically. The throngs of concertgoers are fairly representative of the stereotypical picture of “dirty hippies”: they’re drugged out, rolling around in the grass, dancing hypnotically, many of them in various stages of undress. Unofficially hiring the Hell’s Angels to perform security duties was a vastly misguided move, resulting in a series of poorly handled debacles spiraling out of the promoters’ control. In the commentary, Albert Maysles mentions that the London branch of the Hell’s Angels had served as “honor guards” at an outdoor Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park with no incidents, implying that the Stones were unaware that the California Angels were markedly different from their British counterparts. But there must have been someone in California who could have alerted them to this ill-advised decision.

The hostility between the concertgoers and the Angels is palpable at the outset—someone dances a little too close to the stage during the Jefferson Airplane’s set, so the Angels start beating him with sticks. This bears a particularly ominous portent, yet little action is taken to prevent it from escalating, other than Grace Slick’s lukewarmly asking them to stop, predictably to no effect.

The tension, of course, does escalate—in one scene, the crowd parts to make way for a procession of Hells Angels aggressively riding through on motorcycles. By the time the Rolling Stones, the last band of the night, take the stage the energy is frenzied and anxious. The audience stares at the band in disbelief, one girl with tears streaming down her face—Mick Jagger seems to notice this but begins strutting around like a chicken as if nothing is happening. They interrupt their set at several points, bewilderedly asking “who’s fighting and what for?”, but at this point, it’s beyond them—they’re powerless to stop it. When an audience member is fatally stabbed near the front row by a Hell’s Angel, the band inexplicably keeps playing, finishing their set before immediately being whisked off to safety by helicopter. (They claimed later to have not realized the stabbing was fatal, and felt that if they hadn’t finished their set, a riot would have ensued.)

This film illustrates the degree of prescience a great documentary filmmaker possesses—how did the Maysles have the insight to not only film the Altamont Free Festival, but to actually capture the stabbing? It’s as if they were so in tune with this generation—despite the fact that they were not really of it—that they could better predict the significance of this occasion than those involved. I suppose it simply could have been luck that they were there with their cameras, but I’d like to think it was intentional. Regardless, Gimme Shelter transcends the simple rock documentary, marking the downfall of the 60s, the failure of brotherly love—people believed they could peacefully coexist outside conventional laws, but they ended up fighting one another like something out of Lord of the Flies. The footage of concertgoers leaving the field resembles zombies stumbling along in the eerie light of the Stones’ getaway helicopter—strangely symbolic in and of itself.

Sympathy for the Devil*, another namesake of a classic Rolling Stones track, isn’t so much a documentary but a genre-defying exploration of the 60s with the Rolling Stones playing a character, just one component of the story—I would have expected little else from Jean-Luc Godard, one of the pioneers of the French New Wave. The Stones footage is shot in a recording studio amidst colorful squares placed throughout like sculpture, lending the scene an abstract quality. Throughout the film they seem to be more or less writing “Sympathy for the Devil,” picking it apart, breaking it down to its essence and then building it back up until they have the brilliant track we know today. The repetition has kind of a numbingly hypnotic effect—I’m also pretty sure that I had the words memorized by the end of the movie. The awkwardness of recording vocals is illustrated by periodically letting certain tracks drop out of the soundtrack—one of my favorite moments is watching the band stand around in a circle “whoo-whooing” the backing vocals.

These scenes are politically charged in the subtlest of ways, most notably in the deliberate change in lyrics from “who killed Kennedy” to “who killed the Kennedys”—a chilling reference to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which had just occurred that same month. It’s extremely fortunate that Godard showed up in the studio when he did, as the title track’s lyrics possess weightier and more provocative content than some of their other songs. As Mick Jagger recalls in a 2003 interview in Rolling Stone, “[it was] very fortuitous...We just happened to be recording that song. We could have been recording ‘My Obsession.’ But it was ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and it became the track that we used.”

These scenes with the Stones are broken up with scripted, more conceptual threads depicting divisive issues of that era. Black revolutionaries at a riverside junkyard toss rifles to one another, reciting passages from Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, as the camera pans over ruined cars stacked up in majestic, hulking towers. A character named Eve Democracy wanders the city, stealthily spraypainting provocatively combined words, such as “freudemocracy,” “cinemarxism,” and “sovietcong.” Many of these scenes contain a voiceover that dryly reads from a dirty paperback, perhaps a kind of neutralization of its content.

Watching these two films back to back articulates the pronounced differences between them. Each of these directors has a strong, identifiable cinematic voice (there’s no question as to whose is whose), and each tackles more or less the same basic issues in his own distinct way. Godard takes the intellectual, more didactic approach to communicating his ideas, whereas the Maysles choose to allow the events therein speak for themselves. They never address the issues directly but they’re inherently present, acutely felt.

*The film was originally titled One Plus One, with Sympathy for the Devil being the version that the producers changed in an attempt to create more commercial value. The soundtrack was altered to include the final version of the title track at the end, the title changed as well to incorporate a more obvious reference to the band. Godard was furious at these changes, and actually punched the producer responsible, stating in an interview with The Guardian that “they want to make one plus one equal two. I don’t.”

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