Watched Gimme Shelter again today. The first time I saw this movie, I was still playing bass. After I watched it, I didn't want to play my bass anymore ... I felt like the film showed the terrible truth behind rock and roll power.
It's a very effective movie, but as a documentary, it's problematic ... the Maysles fiddle with reality, they seem to think that's their job, which makes Gimme Shelter more focused, but means the movie is not the definitive statement on Altamont, if such a thing exists.
But I want to talk about the Stones, in particular what we see of their performance at Altamont. They begin playing "Sympathy for the Devil" ... not their first song, but the first one we see in the movie. They barely get into the tune before a bunch of violence breaks out, and they stop playing. The film has been leading inexorably to Meredith Hunter; we're only minutes away. Mick Jagger has shown a remarkable power over an audience in earlier concert footage, but here, he's lost. It looks like they're not going to be able to play ... watching, one wonders why they WANT to play.
But they do. They restart "Sympathy." And it is a monster of a performance. Standing in the midst of anarchy, playing their greatest song about the dark side (this ain't "Dancing with Mr. D"), they pull off a scarily powerful moment, one that makes, say, the Sex Pistols at Winterland look like a parlor game. What kind of band can play their best under such circumstances?
Although they played several more songs, the film jumps immediately to THE song, because after "Sympathy for the Devil" there is nothing more to do, in a dramatic sense, but cut straight to the killing. It seems like an awful choice, as presented in the film ... there must have been something else they could have played at that moment. (And there was, and they did ... again, the film fudges things to improve the narrative.) "Sympathy for the Devil" is terrifyingly abstract, but in the right frame of mind, it's also a bit silly. There's nothing silly about "Under My Thumb," a great song if a song can be great while bragging about squashing women. But it's the wrong song for the real-life moment, even though it's the perfect song for the film's narrative: the charismatic leader sings of oppressing others. The song ends, Meredith Hunter pulls a gun, an Angel stabs him, a man is dead.
I still don't know what to make of this movie ... I give it a 7 on a scale of 10 because I think it's a 10 in terms of how well it achieves what seems to be the artists' intentions, but I suspect it's more like a 4 in terms of how well it manipulates "truth." Which is to say that it manipulates the "truth" very well, but I don't like that they've done it.
But the Rolling Stones? Forget the joke they have become ... they mattered once upon a time, they were a great and seminal band, and they were frighteningly at their best at Altamont.