Though its directors, David and Albert Maysles, have their own film buff cult of personality as the auteurs behind an impressive slew of documentaries (Salesman, Grey Gardens), Mick Jagger's charismatic presence is the real heart of the film.
Jagger lords darkly over Gimme Shelter like an impish sexual dervish in his pasty, erotically exaggerated prime, a whirl of hip bones and teasing pout. Almost as captivating as Jagger's rosy lips and petulant schoolboy/harlot prance is the Maysles' survey of his enraptured disciples. The Maysles' footage of the ecstatic concert fandom exquisitely captures its slack-jawed girls and otherwise heterosexual boys whose orgasmic expressions suggest both identification and lust.
As the Maysles lay bare the device -- screening rushes of their documentary for the Stones to build the pieces to the inevitable cataclysm -- Gimme Shelter assumes the feel of epic drama, a kind of primitive pagan exorcism of the churning emotions and energy of the music.
Male power is a leitmotif of the film, and it assumes many forms in Gimme Shelter, from the sexual charisma of Jagger's hypnotic groove to the high-powered corporate swagger of the Stone's silver-haired lawyer Melvin Belli to the feral, bellicose masculinity of the Hell's Angels. Hired to unofficially police the 1969 Altamont Free Concert, the Angels instead draw the concert deeper and deeper into chaos, a chaos culminating in one death and countless disillusionments. The Angels arriving at the Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco astride their beloved motorcycles look like something out of the Middle Ages, a spectacle of warlord masculinity so extreme, and admittedly intoxicating, the eventual climactic murder of concert-goer Meredith Hunter seems inevitable. Pacing the Altamont stage like wary tigers as the Stones fight for performing space, the anti-social Angels clash viciously with the dying light of '60s hippiedom.
The fresh-faced kids in the crowd blanche with visible distress at the horrible transformation of their good vibe into a bust as the sunny day changes into a black, violent night. By the next day's hazy dawn, there is a discernible funk cast on the concert goers and a sense of crushed expectations as the kids troop back to their cars, back to the real world. It's a real world that seems even more inescapably gloomy in light of the previous night's chaos, and their fatigue is that of kids rudely wrenched into adulthood.
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