Shots From the Canon #17: ‘Gimme Shelter’ (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction. This week’s Shots is written by guest filmmaker and writer Amanda Wilder.


Gimme Shelter is the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker. After watching it the first time, I rewound the tape and watched it again. Up until then, only in poems by poets with documentary impulses (William Carlos Williams, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) had I found the nuances of living, seen and unseen, articulated so fully. If “the project of poetry is to capture the ‘real reality: somewhere between dream and reason,’” as Octavio Paz puts it, Gimme Shelter is a picture of that.

The film is a sea of contrasts, beautifully untranslatable, thrilling and haunting in its impressions of human nature. It outlines experience and reflection, the individual and the mob, heaven and hell, sympathy and criticism. It’s about The Rolling Stones, it’s about filmmaking, it’s about the ’60s and it’s about us. Not for an instant do filmmakers Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and editor Charlotte Zwerin steamroll real complexity for the sake of a simple, easily digestible story, and yet they have our rapt attention the entire time.

What is it about the Stones? The same could be asked about the filmmakers, whose work similarly leaves us with a lingering sense of having been led to ecstatically light and dark areas we can’t help but relate to. One of the reasons Gimme Shelter hooks us so surely is through the converging talents of the Stones, the Maysleses, and Zwerin. In front of Albert Maysles’s lens, Mick’s on-stage performances reach new heights of enchantment, and now and then we watch with fascination the persona flicker off and on. In moments behind the scenes, Albert Maysles empathetically reveals their mortality.

Yet it’s the structuring and editing of Gimme Shelter that sets it apart. Instead of just watching from start to end the Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour, which most people know culminated in a disastrous free concert at the Altamont Speedway, where 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels hired as security, we get this information via a radio broadcast in the first five minutes of the film. Embedded with this knowledge upfront, Gimme Shelter swiftly transforms from a concert film into a sort of murder mystery in which we watch footage of the tour scanning for clues for how things got to where they did at Altamont.

Enriching this sense of mixed reflection and observation are the multiple scenes of the Stones watching the footage after it all happened. As our eyes traverse from the group reacting to what they see on the screen and into the footage they’re watching, we get a kind of multi-vision. Are we viewing strictly as ourselves or also as the Stones, or as the filmmakers, or all three, or more?

This toying with who we are as a character (apparent also in how the beginning focuses on the editor/the editing process, the middle on the Stones, and at Altamont, on the crowd), fractures our ability to grab ahold of the situation from one perspective and point a finger in one direction. How can you when everything, the structure and editing tells us, is connected, is each other? Here lies the most haunting part of Gimme Shelter — the implication that there’s never one devil, but that there’s one inside all of us which can appear among us given the right cocktail of human circumstances.

Gimme Shelter is available on DVD and Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection. The commentary track with Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin and Stanley Goldstein is recommended.

Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema: #1 News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977) #2 The Store (Frederick Wiseman, 1983) #3 Below Sea Level (Gianfranco Rosi, 2008) #4 Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965) #5 The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2005) #6 Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974) #7 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1973–1979) #8 How To Live in the German Federal Republic (Harun Farocki, 1990) #9 Man of Aran (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934) #10 The Belovs (Victor Kossakovsky, 1994) #11 The ‘Koker’ Trilogy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987–1994) #12 Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992) #13 Streetwise (Martin Bell, 1984) #14 Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992) #15 An Injury to One (Travis Wilkerson, 2002) #16 Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)

The Nonfics staff works tirelessly to ensure that you always know what's going on in the world of nonfiction entertainment.