There’s a moment in Gimme Shelter, David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American tour, that’s just as stunning today as it was in 1970, when the film was first released. It’s the moment in which Mick Jagger realizes that he has failed to give the devil his due.
Onstage at Altamont, Jagger has just launched into “Under My Thumb.” The hand-held camera is pretty tight on his face as he looks out at the violence that has broken out right in front of the stage. The Hell’s Angels, who have been hired as security, are randomly clubbing kids in the first rows as their friends try in vain to protect them. The situation was already out of hand before the Stones took the stage, but either they were in denial or they believed that things would only get worse if they refused to perform. Intermittently beseeching the crowd to “stay cool,” the Stones get through several numbers on automatic pilot. But as Jagger launches into “Under My Thumb,” 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 300,000 assembled fans are hearing it—and we see it dawn on him that he is complicit in the violence which has crossed the line from collective fantasy to reality. And as powerful a performer as he believes himself to be, he can’t control what is taking place on his watch.
Gimme Shelter follows “the world’s greatest rock and roll band” at the height of its showmanship and musical energies for roughly 20 days, beginning at Madison Square Garden and ending at Altamont, with a time-out from live performing to lay down tracks for their next album. Seeing the documentary at a distance of 30 years inspires a mix of nostalgia and disillusionment, but it also allows for certain historical insights. The movie emphasizes process—the process of making music, of performing, of doing business, of filmmaking. And it’s now clear that the focus on process was to the culture of the ’60s what the attention to prices and grosses is to the culture we live in today. (For this new release, the filmmakers added Dolby to the sound mix, a couple of shots of bare-breasted women at Altamont, and a few expletives to the fascinating scene where lawyer Melvin Belli negotiates for a site for the free California concert impulsively committed to by Jagger.)
The Maysles brothers and Zwerin intercut live tour footage with material shot a few weeks later in the editing room the day the Stones came to view an early version of the film, which would need their approval for release. The last scene in Gimme Shelter involves Jagger sitting at the flatbed editing table, asking for a second look at the bit of film that shows what he couldn’t quite see from the stage as he sang “Under My Thumb”: how Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black man, after being pushed and hit by the Angels, pulls out a gun and is immediately disarmed and fatally stabbed by one of them while the others stomp out what life may be left in his bleeding body. “Could you run it again?” Jagger asks softly, and in a Zapruder-like moment, the image flickers in slo-mo on the tiny screen while one of the filmmakers leans over to point out the gun and the knife. “Well, that’s it,” says Jagger. And we see a freeze-frame close-up of his face—as composed and inscrutable as earlier it had been transparently expressive.
For Stones devotees, the great pleasure in Gimme Shelter is seeing the band when its members could give themselves over to the music and to the still-novel experience of feeling the audience hang on their every sound and gesture. In those days, Jagger could surprise himself in the presence of thousands of strangers. When that happens, his smile radiates across the screen. That smile has long vanished, and more than creased skin and stiffened knees, it’s what makes him seem old as a performer.
As a backstage film, Gimme Shelter seems revealing today only if you’ve never seen Cocksucker Blues, the documentary Robert Frank shot of the Stones on tour in 1972. The Stones refused to sign off on Cocksucker Blues, although they allow special art-venue screenings in places like Anthology. (Widely available on bootleg video, Cocksucker Blues easily triumphs over the degradation of an inept VHS transfer.) Frank and the Stones must have known from the first that the project they were engaged in was too revealing and legally compromising to be shown in public until everyone involved was dead and buried. One of the great art films from that decade and a half we refer to as the ’60s, it was made for the sake of art and posterity, with a reckless disregard of what’s possible in the public arena. Gimme Shelter, a pop culture document for a mass audience, slyly lets you know in every frame that it’s gone to the limits of the law.
Another darkly brilliant song-and-dance man, Christopher Walken, gets a chance to show the regular-guy side of himself in Myles Connell’s nifty little heist movie, The Opportunists. Walken stars as Vic Kelly, a reformed safecracker who’s having a hard time making ends meet. Vic’s car repair shop doesn’t generate enough income to pay the rent on the shabby Queens house where he lives with his grown-up daughter (Vera Farmiga) and also cover the fee for keeping his elderly aunt (Anne Pitoniak) in a nearby private nursing home. Vic takes his responsibilities seriously enough to risk going to prison again and losing the love of his long-term girlfriend (Cyndi Lauper), who owns the neighborhood bar. When a couple of old acquaintances (Donal Logue and Jose Zuniga) and another young man (Peter McDonald)—recently arrived from Ireland and claiming to be Vic’s cousin—invite him to join them in a robbery that requires his special safecracking skill, he agrees.
A highly promising first-time director, Connell has a fine-tuned sense of the film’s working-class, Irish American, outer-borough milieu and of the people who’ve lived there all their lives. (The film’s only false note is the overly chic cinematography by the usually dependable Teodoro Maniaci.) Although Vic is the focal character, The Opportunists is largely an ensemble piece, and Connell, blatantly appreciative of his terrific cast, allows them to riff off one another in every scene. Both Walken and McDonald seem like men who keep their own counsel, but Walken’s gravity and tenderness is amusingly matched to McDonald’s boyish impulsivity. And as usual, Logue impresses by seeming more like a real person who wandered onto the screen than like an actor.
More crucial to the success of a heist movie than the timing, logic, and mechanics of the robbery is that the audience be on the side of the robbers, that something of ourselves is at stake in whether or not they pull off the job. The Opportunists delivers an anxious five minutes when we worry that the Robin Hood-like Vic might not get away with what is essentially a victimless crime. Filled with vivid and likable characters, The Opportunists could be the basis for a TV series as captivating as The Sopranos.