It's Just a Shot Away

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I'm not normally a fan of rock docs. Shaky footage of a concert I never attended doesn't grab my attention. There are exceptions, of course. One of them, I discovered last night, is Gimme Shelter, which is playing at the Belcourt through Thursday.


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I realize that most (all?) of the people who read this blog are already huge music fans, and that recommending such a famous rock film is like someone walking up to a Memphian and saying, "Have you ever heard of Elvis Presley?" But I'm going to do it anyway.

Charlotte Zwerin and David and Albert Maysles were shooting a documentary about the Rolling Stones and witnessed the infamous Altamont Speedway concert in which the Hell's Angels, the hired security force, killed a man. Obviously, the finished film became almost exclusively about the incident. Featured briefly in the movie is prominent 1960s Angel, Sonny Barger, who also makes frequent appearances in Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.

Through the Zwerin and the Maysles brothers, the end of the 60s was caught on film. The idealized hippie culture of Woodstock and Haight Ashbury here looks sad and pathetic. These are not innocent, peace-loving flower children, just a bunch of people in weird clothes and unkempt hair. A guy wacked out on drugs harasses one of the cameramen. A white woman asks for donations to the Black Panther party and then wonders aloud why the government is trying to kill off the group when "they're just a bunch of Negros." When the scuffles start, Jefferson Airplane lead singer Marty Balin is knocked unconscious. The Angels beat people with pool cues. Two people die in a hit-and-run (not on film) and the film ends with video footage of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter stabbed to death. In the center of all of this is Mick Jagger, unsure of his responsibility and completely unable to control the situation.

It's almost like a home movie, really. A very well edited, poignant home movie that captures your family's deep, dark secrets. You see close-ups of Keith Richards' acne, Charlie Watts' uneasiness around the camera, Mick Jagger's uncertainty about how and when to play the rock icon role. In one scene, the Stones start dancing to their own music in a hotel room. In another, Jagger criticizes his responses in a press conference. Later he hits his head on the doorframe when he exists a trailer to sign autographs. The Stones are still cool in the film, but Gimme Shelter is not edited to highlight their sexiness and cool factor. In fact, the movie is less about the Stones and more about the end of an era.

So go see it at the Belcourt.

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