June 2, 2003

Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin's Gimme Shelter (1970)

by George Butler

In late 1974, I published a book, with writer Charles Gaines, called Pumping Iron: The Art of Bodybuilding. I thought this could be a subject for a film and that its main character, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could become a big movie star.

No one agreed with me. It was impossible to find an experienced director to touch the subject. After being turned down by Frederick Wiseman, DeWitt Sage Jr., Howard Smith, David Wolper and others, I decided I would direct and produce my own movie.

I had never directed a film before, so in preparation, I rented a 16mm projector and a dozen top documentary films. I set up the projector in the cellar of my farm in New Hampshire and began watching films by Wiseman, DA Pennebaker and others, watching carefully to see how you opened a film, developed the characters, told the story.

Then I put on the first reel of Gimme Shelter. Nothing on earth could have given me a quicker study on how to make a cutting-edge film that not only captured its subject beautifully, but played out the subject like a novela Russian novel, even. At the time, I had been a writer, then a photographer. I was influenced by the nonfiction novelists of the late '60sNorman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, et aland I had it in mind to employ their techniques in imposing dramatic structure on documentary film.

In Gimme Shelter, I saw it playing out on the screen from the start of the film. As is well-known, Gimme Shelter starts with directors Albert and David Maysles filming the Stones viewing footage on the Maysles' editing machine. Fellow director Charlotte Zwerin presides, showing Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts the film within the film, thus making another story out of the murder at Altamont Speedway that becomes the center of Gimme Shelter.

The music drew me in like a magnet. But there was more coming: behind-the-scenes shots that were almost unbearably candid. Faces, scenes and motions that revealed truth. The end credits of the film listed at least a dozen camerapeople. (Two of them, Bob Fiori and Joan Churchill, would work for me on Pumping Iron). But the trick, as I interpreted it from what I was viewing, was to roll the cameramany camerasa lot and see what they might capture. Of courseand the Maysles brothers knew thisit was essential to find a great subject (who in the '60s was more electric than Mick Jagger at a big concert?) and then get access to it. But then, the super trick is to pick the story over carefully, establish an editing plan and then allow the story to flow forward. By selecting certain charactersbig game lawyer Melvin Belli, specific fans from the audience and the Hells Angels, disastrously requested by organizers to police the concertthe movie becomes a mirror of its age.

I watched Gimme Shelter three times in May 1975. I watched it again three times before writing this article. I could watch it again tonight, remembering my own youth in the '60s.

 

Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in the June 2003 Documentary as a "Playback" piece.

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