Mick Jagger may be some kind of showman, but even he couldn't help but be upstaged by a fatal knifing. Not to be glib, but that's pretty much the lesson of David and Albert Maysles's Gimme Shelter. As you probably already know even if you've never seen it, the Maysles's riveting documentary of the Rolling Stones' 1969 U.S. tour climaxes with the murder of Meredith Hunter by a pack of Hell's Angels at a free concert at the Altamont Speedway, as the Stones slog torturously through "Under My Thumb."
Yet the film couches a much subtler narrative: an examination of what happens when a narcissist who's guaranteed the center of attention suddenly has that attention taken away.
The narcissist, of course, is Mick Jagger, a man whose gaze never strays far from his fine self throughout the course of the film. Before a single image appears onscreen, we hear Jagger jovially calling for the house lights at Madison Square Garden to be turned on. "Let's have a look at you," he coos to the audience, his drawl slathered in irony--for he couldn't care less what they look like. Unsurprisingly, Jagger dominates the film. Keith Richard (before he tagged that superfluous s onto the end of his surname) nestles too snugly into his cocoon of cool to steal any scenes, as if he realizes that there's nothing he can say that a prolonged close-up on his snakeskin boots doesn't express more succinctly. And while the near-silent Charlie Watts and orotund lawyer Melvin Belli register two notable supporting performances, no one can wrench the adoring camera away from Jagger.
Except for the dead guy, that is. With hindsight, of course, the only operative question for the filmmakers to engage is, What went wrong at Altamont? And so, visceral as the concert shots are throughout, they are also either rendered meaningless or tinged with ominous threats. But rather than dealing exhaustively with the facts (which would admittedly have made for a less gripping film), the Maysles make the grand, easy implication: Events must have spun out of control. And so, as the Stones preen about the country like spoiled aristocrats abroad, and while grownups like Belli negotiate the fateful conditions for the concert, doom hangs over the proceedings.
In the process, Altamont threatens to become a symbolic event--you know, the End of the Sixties. Of course, in order to accept that there really was something called the Sixties--and that they could definitively end--requires not just a belief in a divine hand arranging history, but a klutzily obvious one at that. Only a generation dedicated to a facile historiography that placed a meaningless idealization of itself at the center of the universe's events could buy that--and you know who that generation is.
But the Stones jar against the Zeitgeist that surrounds them so completely that they seem to have nothing in common with the zonked-out celebrants who weave arrhythmically to their beat. When Jagger babbles some utopian truisms about a free festival being a "microcosmic society" for the straight world to learn from, his attempt at earnestness is palpably awkward. When the camera pans out across the audience from the stage, and we see them bobbing and screaming and hopping grotesquely, we can identify with Jagger's burgeoning contempt for his fans. (Not that these kids deserve it: It is unfair to film anyone in her twenties totally wasted for future generations to ridicule.)
Still, this distance between musicians and audience is fascinating: No one in the crowd seems to notice how brilliantly and infuriatingly aloof Jagger often is onstage. The concert footage is startling to those familiar only with legends of the Stones' performances and references like Pauline Kael's to Jagger's "feral intensity." There is an undeniable power here, but it's far more self-conscious than all that. Jagger's genius is his considered deployment of artifice. Contrast Tina Turner's smoldering microphone fellatio here during "I've Been Loving You Too Long." She commits herself totally to the role for the sake of the performance. Jagger toys with his various roles, tosses aside half-formed personae, flounces with hand on hip, waggles a scolding finger, and lips wordless taunts at no one in particular.
The Stones were ironic in a sincere moment--"ironic" as in cheaply sarcastic, exuberantly dodgy, willfully posturing, and any other sense of the word. Jagger doesn't feed off the vibe of his fans. Instead, he distances himself from them, and not even in a coyly seductive way: His is the prance of utter self-absorption. He plays with his dangling scarf as if to amuse only himself. And so, when he buries himself beyond affectation in Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain," you can't help but wonder where this charismatic twit has summoned up such reserves of unwarranted soul. The movie itself provides no answer, eventually indulging in a slo-mo montage of Jagger whirling about the stage.
Now, hallucinogens are not known for sharpening one's sense of irony: If you pound long enough on a lysergically addled mass with your satanic pretensions, no matter how ironic, someone's bound to freak. But there is probably no first-class frontman who'd be less equipped to handle such a crisis than Jagger. Though a master of improvisation, Jagger is not a spontaneous performer. He insists on controlling the grounds for that improvisation. And so, his protestations to "be cool" as Altamont whirls into chaos verge on the pathetic. (As if to underline that, a shot of a Hell's Angel looking disparagingly at Jagger reveals how silly Mick looks when his act is taken out of context.)
To conclude, the Maysles offer Jagger one last look at himself. The film closes with a variation of the old cinema verité trick, with Jagger watching the playback of Hunter's murder. To call Jagger's response to the playback "cruel" is to miss the point. The shot itself is cruel, no less so because Jagger has assented to it. After all, how do we expect Jagger to respond? His ambiguous glare and bit lip seem callous, but Jagger is called upon to act like a human here, to demonstrate a human emotion, to play a role for which he never auditioned.