Sample Film Analysis

“Who’s Fighting and What For?” – The Cinematic Realism of Gimme Shelter

By Corey Koepper

*A research paper exploring the direct cinema techniques pioneered by the Maysles brothers in their 1970 Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter.

Documentary is a cinematic genre of differential aspects, divisible into sub-genres much as a horror film could be considered a “slasher” or “psychological thriller.”  Several decades ago, these different approaches became apparent, some of which seeking to convey absolute truth through purely unreactive filmmaking.  One such movement was direct cinema.  According to film professor Stephen Prince, direct cinema was a movement that “emerged in the 1960s, characterized by films that seemed to be merely observations, without advocating a set of politics or point of view, and in which the filmmaker’s editorial role seemed relatively neutral (Prince 2010, 304).”  This sub-genre was pioneered by many of the decade’s influential filmmakers, including Albert and David Maysles.

In their 1970 film, Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers used one such direct cinema technique to help convey a statement of momentous impact.  Gimme Shelter involves the directors’ objective participation within the film, allowing the subjects (rock band, the Rolling Stones) to physically watch footage captured by the filmmakers, mainly consisting of that taken during the murderous Altamont Free Concert.  Therefore, with the naturalistic footage taken at both the concert and in the editing room, viewers are able to see the band contemplate the consequences of their own actions, thereby displaying a visual dismantlement of a generation built around love, rock-and-roll, and ultimately, an aura of utter illusion.

The film captures the final days of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour, in which the band’s “ecstatic” performances at Madison Square Garden are contrasted with the “disastrous” events at the free concert held in San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway, to which “an estimated three hundred thousand people flocked … and four of them were killed (Taubin 2000).”  Intercut are sequences of the band re-watching concert footage shot by the Maysles, and as a result, their reflection upon the negligence of the show’s formation, as well as a young generation that could not withstand the onset of reality.

The second half of the film captures these occurrences at Altamont, which become increasingly violently as the Rolling Stones cannot get through a single performance without a so-called “scuffle” within the audience, a result of the Hells Angels biker gang (hired as security) clashing with thousands of happily stoned young people.  The Altamont sequence begins with performances by The Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane, followed by The Rolling Stones, whose late presence onstage antagonizes an already restless audience.  As stated by Oakland Hells Angel leader Ralph “Sonny” Barger, “[the Angels] just sat and drank beer, watching the crowd get more and more fucked up … I didn’t like the fact that [the Stones] wouldn’t come out earlier … the crowd was pissed off and the craziness began (Barger 2000, 228).”  That craziness is captured by the Maysles’ cameras, which simply do not stop rolling.  The audience is then subject to the Rolling Stones watching what was seen through those lenses (see Fig.1), “as if reliving a crime in which they turned out to be unknowing participants (Cheshire 2000).”


In the Altamont sequence, the Stones are first seen performing “Sympathy for the Devil,” in which a mere minute goes by before a fight forces the band to stop playing.  The use of 16 mm stock and handheld cameras allow the Maysles to capture such incidents in all their harsh actuality, creating a rough feel that implies watching something that should, in fact, not be seen.  As quoted by film critic Pauline Kael upon the film’s release: “It’s like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination or of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder … the violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema verité jackpot (Kael 1970).”

The film is not quite cinema verité, using specific techniques of cinematography, editing, and (probably unintentionally) symbolic lighting to evoke the tone of Altamont, but neither does it encroach upon its entry in the field of direct cinema; or as art critic John Berger would put it, the film never approaches the point of “mystification.”  According to Berger, “mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident (Berger 1972, 16).”  The Stones do conclude their performance of “Sympathy for the Devil,” a song evoking the band’s status as Satanic masters of rock-and-roll.  But as the Hells Angels lay an injured audience member upon the ground in front of an emotionless camera (see Fig.2), it is obvious that the Maysles have captured no mystification, and that on this night, there is none the Stones can display.  Lead singer Mick Jagger asks the audience “who’s fighting and what for?”  In the editing room, Jagger’s expression will show a man, who like all others, has no idea.


As Jagger then begs the audience to “cool out,” the nature of mise-en-scène in Gimme Shelter becomes evident.  The audience is shrouded in darkness, while the miniscule stage is the only source of light (see Fig.3).  The stage will soon become violated by fans who have simply lost control, or rather, a generation whose ideals have become uncontrollable within a tangible world.  To assure that these Woodstock-era teens remain within the confines of reality are the Hells Angels.  Their black jackets fully contrast with the flamboyant costumes of the Rolling Stones, providing a striking image that is also evident in the below shot.


There is a certain irony in the Stones being cast as a source of “illumination” within the Altamont show, considering that within the film’s time scheme, the band members are watching the same footage as the audience at the exact same moment, slowly realizing that they were as separated from reality as the crowd that received the band’s musical sermons.  The Stones then play “Under My Thumb,” a ballad designed to relax the audience, but that will ultimately end in murder.  The event will later be re-examined, but as guitarist Keith Richards begins to strum the opening chords, it is certainly foreshadowed.  As observed by film analyst Amy Taubin, “[Jagger’s] barely gotten out the first line of “Under My Thumb” when a look of bewilderment mixed with recognition comes over his face, as if he’s hearing the lyric for the first time—hearing it from the outside, as the three hundred thousand assembled fans are hearing it—and we see it dawn on him that he may be complicit in the violence that has crossed the line from collective fantasy to reality (Taubin 2000).”  This implication of violence is further implied by the close-up on Jagger’s face, which (throughout a minute-length shot of deep focus) is accompanied by an onstage, dazed fan in the background (see Fig.4).


These few minutes of footage, precursor to the stabbing that would define Altamont, are accomplished through what film professors Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis call “two of direct cinema’s visual techniques, the static camera and use of long takes, which seek to strongly connote the idea that viewers are invisible observers watching events unfold (Pramaggiore and Wallis 2008, 289).”  By the Rolling Stones re-watching this footage, the “observers” then become visible to the audience.  Although the lighting and cinematography may persuade audiences to think a certain way about what happened at Altamont, there is no manipulation of these facets in direct cinema.  Their effects are simply rooted in the human subconscious to provoke some kind of reaction, which becomes obvious as Jagger is seen staring at the screen in the editing room.  This use of documentary narrative is how the film ultimately conveys its apocalyptic message, complemented by the cameras that simply observed what happened on that cold December night.

It is not until approximately an hour and 25 minutes into the film that the viewers fully see Mick Jagger’s reaction to the ultimate tragedy that occurred at Altamont (review Fig.1).  David Maysles replays the footage over and over (see Fig.5), as Jagger stares timidly into that screen in the editing room, softly proclaiming: “it’s so horrible.”  In slow-motion, both the audience and the lead singer of “the greatest rock & roll band in the world” see a Hells Angel draw a knife, bringing it down into a young man’s flesh.  According to music journalist Stanley Booth, who travelled on the fateful tour, that mere teenager was “a Beale Street nigger in a black hat, black shirt, iridescent blue-green suit, arms and legs stuck out at crazy angles, [with] a nickel-plated revolver in his hand. [He] was eighteen years old (Booth 2000, 363).”  That Jagger was partially responsible for such a tragedy is what knocks the Rolling Stones off their pedestal, finally displaying a group of rock stars who once spoke to a generation, and whose worship of love, peace, and drugs is no longer relevant in a changing society.  Jagger is now another member of the audience, simply witnessing a murder that cannot be prevented by these vices, but is instead a product of a reality quickly approaching.


This reality projected onto the viewers of Gimme Shelter is a certain result of the direct cinema technique used by the Maysles brothers, who combine observational footage with reaction to produce a significant historical and ethical statement.  Jagger marks his departure from the editing room with a simple “well…see y’all,” essentially saying goodbye to a generation.  His face is then shown through freeze frame, upon which the camera encroaches with a long, slow zoom (see Fig.6).


Upon this technical contemplation, it becomes apparent that Jagger, like all men and women, experiences guilt; but this is the first time it has occurred “onstage,” in front of an audience.  But instead of being exposed to a crowd of roaring fans, his raw emotion is now placed in front of the viewers of a film; those watching Gimme Shelter.  The stage will never be the same for Jagger now that his faithful followers have become shunned by reality, and as he leaves the editing room, this seismic shift has now become clear.  As described by author and musician Michael Lydon, “like Mick and Charlie [Watts] watching the raw footage, I can’t escape the fact: I was there, I did embrace the chaos. I’m also glad that I survived it and have lived long enough to turn my ponytail gray, long enough to understand the poignancy of Bob Dylan’s wish for everyone: that we stay forever young (Lydon 2000).”  That longing dream of youth may still survive today, but as Altamont displayed, the tangibility it reached within the 1960s would never return.

Georgia Bergman, Jagger’s assistant at the time, stated “we had travelled from an English fairy tale to an American nightmare” (Bergman 2000).”  The Maysles were there to capture that unadulterated nightmare, as well as pass it on to those responsible.  In turn, this created something “no one had bargained for: a terrifying snapshot of the sudden collapse of the sixties (Cheshire 2000).”  Gimme Shelter was the result; a triumph of direct cinema that extended film beyond the confines of a screen.



Barger, Ralph, Keith Zimmerman, and Kent Zimmerman. 2000. Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. New York: William Morrow.

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series with John Berger. London: British Broadcasting Corp.

Bergman, Georgia. 2000. “Gimme Shelter: Snapshots from the Road.” The Criterion Collection. (accessed October 1, 2011).

Booth, Stanley. 2000. The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Chicago: A Capella.

Cheshire, Godfrey. 2000. “30th Anniversary of Gimme Shelter.” New York Press. (accessed October 1, 2011).

Kael, Pauline. 1970. “Gimme Shelter.” New Yorker, December 19. The Current Cinema.

Lydon, Michael. 2000. “Gimme Shelter: The Decade That Spawned Altamont.” The Criterion Collection. (accessed October 1, 2011).

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. 2008. Film: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Pearson/Allyn And Bacon.

Prince, Stephen. 2010. Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Taubin, Amy. 2000 “Gimme Shelter: Rock-and-Roll Zapruder.” The Criterion Collection. (accessed October 1, 2011).


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