A conversation with Albert Maysles, director of Rolling Stones doc Gimme Shelter

Legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles had a front-row view of the moment when the Flower Power movement of the late ’60s slid irrevocably into chaos. Maysles, now 83, will be in Vancouver tomorrow and Saturday (April 30 and May 1) for screenings of his groundbreaking documentaries, among them the classic 1970 concert film Gimme Shelter, which depicts the Rolling Stones’ infamous December 1969 show at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Along with his brother, David, and a crew of camera operators, Maysles captured an event marred by powerful drugs and pool-cue-swinging violence unleashed on audience members by drunken Hells Angels, who’d been hired by the Stones as security. As the film shows, the chaos peaked with the fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old audience member, Meredith Hunter, only yards from the band.

Maysles will be on-hand at Pacific Cinématheque on Friday (April 30) to take questions between showings of Gimme Shelter and his 1976 cult favourite Grey Gardens. Also on the program will be Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, a half-hour film composed of outtakes from the Gimme Shelter footage.

The following evening (May 1), he’ll be at Capilano University for a retrospective of his storied career and a look at his current projects.

The Straight recently caught up with Maysles by phone at his New York office.

Georgia Straight: By the time you made Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones were already very famous. Does that kind of subject create challenges for a documentary filmmaker—a group of people who are that used to performing, that conscious of their own image?

Albert Maysles: Not really. I’m very good at getting access to people so that they feel very comfortable in my presence and just go on being themselves. So we didn’t have that problem with the camera being there.

GS: Still, someone like Mick Jagger is very used to being observed. Did you ever wonder whether you were looking at an act sometimes?

AM: No, I didn’t feel that way at all.

GS: What did you think the film was going to be originally? The events probably turned out quite different from what you expected.

AM: I’m an optimist by nature, so I had no idea that it was going to turn out so badly in so many ways. But I was nevertheless determined to make it more than just a concert film, and it certainly was that, with all the things that took place being part of the story.

GS: If the events at Altamont hadn’t happened, what were you aiming for?

AM: Whatever there was. It turned out to be what it was with all those bad events, but—I don’t know. I can’t guess.

GS: What drew you to the subject initially?

AM: I didn’t even know who the Stones were. And I got a call from [famed cinematographer] Haskell Wexler”¦and he happened to be in contact with the Stones. This was just when the Stones were in California, about to come to New York. So he called me up and said, “The Stones are going to be at the Plaza Hotel tomorrow. You may want to meet them.” So my brother and I went to the Plaza and knocked on the door, got to know them. They told us they were performing in Baltimore the next night, so that would be a good chance to get to know them better, and their music. So we went to Baltimore, and we thought, “Oh my God, these guys are really good.” And we made a deal right away. So a couple of days later we were filming at Madison Square Garden.

GS: And that’s the footage we see near the start of the movie?

AM: Yup. In fact, just recently we went back to the extra material that we didn’t put into the film, and material of the performances at Madison Square Garden, and made a whole new film called Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out.

GS: At what point did you realize that this was going to be something exceptional?

AM: Well, even at Madison Square Garden, the performances were so good and the audience was so much with it—which of course is a major part of the whole film, their performance and their personalities—that we recognized it right away as being an enormous asset for the film. And of course we’d get more of it in California. Actually, my favourite scene in the whole film is not them performing but listening to the playback of “Wild Horses” at the recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

GS: At Altamont, it was you and your brother operating cameras, along with several others, right?

AM: Oh yeah. If you look at the credits, there’s something like 15 or 18 more cameras.

GS: So how did you stay coordinated in an environment that got pretty chaotic?

AM: Well, we lost contact, of course, with all these guys. But they were mostly people that we knew, and they knew our way of filming, so that there weren’t any interviews or anything of that sort. They just went out on their own, all over the place.

GS: And where were you?

AM: Early on, I was in the crowd, just to the left of the stage. In fact, I was probably going to stay there except that the man just in front of me got up and said, “If you stay right here, I’ll kill you.” [laughs]

GS: Was that one of the Hells Angels?

AM: No, it was just an ordinary person. I think he may have thought that with his son just below me that the camera might fall on him. I mean, that’s the best I can think of, about what his problem was. Anyway, I moved out of there very quickly and went up on the stage, which was good because it was a better position to film the Stones and the audience—I could see the audience. But as a matter of fact, where I was standing before was exactly where the killing took place. I didn’t get that, but my brother with another camera was standing on a truck just outside of the stage area and was able to see that exactly, and he got the shot.

GS: Watching the film again, it all looks so claustrophobic, and you have that sense of the huge crowd behind that scene. Did you ever think “We should get out of here”?

AM: No, because I wanted to get that story, no matter what it was, even with the beatings and all that negative stuff. The oddest part of the whole thing is that one of the Hells Angels kept after me, wanting to help me carry my bag. So I let him do that. What’s perhaps overlooked is that the Hells Angels had all these problems largely because the guy who normally would be in command was out of town, was unavailable, so one of the young guys who was inexperienced at controlling the Hells Angels was in charge. So they were uncontrolled and behaved so badly.

GS: So a senior member of the Hells Angels would normally have been there?

AM: Yeah, so there would have been more control.

GS: After that show, did the band ever seem to have second thoughts about releasing the film?

AM: Oh yeah. In fact, when we finished the film we hadn’t secured a release from them up to that point. And when we asked for the release, they just didn’t have the heart to give us the release. I assume that was Mick Jagger’s decision. So six months went by without a release, and my brother met up with the guy—I forget his name, the producer of the film Performance [Sanford Lieberson]—but my brother met up with him, and he asked to see the film. We showed him the film and explained that we didn’t have a release, and he said, “Oh, I’ll talk to Mick.” He liked the film and talked to Mick, and Mick gave us the release. But we had to wait for it for six months.

GS: The footage that we see of Mick Jagger sitting in the edit room, watching the film—he does seem seriously alarmed at reviewing the events.

AM: Oh yeah. Some people have interpreted his reaction at the editing table as not caring about what happened. But I don’t think that’s true at all. He comes across as being very seriously disturbed.

GS: Did this experience change you as a filmmaker?

AM: No. What happens is, you make a film like that and you get some of the critics who are a little bit crazy in their reviews. For example, Vincent Canby of the New York Times—a very decent guy and all—in his review he said something to the effect that “The Maysles must have thought ”˜How wonderful!’” when we saw that we had a killing on film. Which is okay, except that the editor titled the review with the statement “Making Murder Pay”. So that, of course, disturbed us a lot. We weren’t exploiting the film. The events had to be shown. But then other critics also questioned our motivation in showing it [the attack on Meredith Hunter]. Of course, if we didn’t have it, then they’d say, “Where were you guys? You missed the most important thing.” So they got you coming and going. [laughs]

GS: There are other famous concert documentaries from that time, like the film about Woodstock. What role does yours play? How is yours different?

AM: Woodstock was quite a different sort of thing. There were a lot of interviews, which we wouldn’t do, and we didn’t use. If you’ve got the story, then why do you have to superimpose an interview on it? Each question determines the answer that you get, so it’s not as accurate a thing as you really want. Then, also, there were a number of crazy things going on too at Woodstock. People were on bad drugs there as well. But none of that got filmed. In fact, you’d know that they wouldn’t show that, even from the interviews. The interviews are, “Well, isn’t everything wonderful? Isn’t it great? It’s wonderful.” And of course people say, “Yeah, sure, it’s great.” So they missed some of the bad stuff.

GS: The ’60s are still kind of a touchstone in political debates now. On the left, people think of it as a magical time, and on the right people say it’s a warning about social mayhem. Where does Gimme Shelter fit in?

AM: Well, I’ve often thought of it in relation to the film that we made of the Beatles in 1964, when they came to America [What’s Happening! The Beatles in America]. That was, of course, an entirely different story, and different characters as well. But people have said that if you want to know the ’60s, just look at those two films.

GS: And, as you said, films like the one about Woodstock wanted to turn away from the scarier facets.

AM: Right. They wanted to show everything to be rosy. And a lot of it was. But then there was a dark side as well.


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May 3, 2010 at 6:46pm

Regardless of what Albert Maysles may rationalize to himself, he did indeed exploit the situation for profit. But he manages to put a (dark)human picture on things when he says "my brother ... got the shot". And for all the Hell's Angels supporters, this is what they are really about... drugs, violence, intimidation. Besides everyone knows the only band that really mattered was The Who. The Stones just had good marketing and publicity. Maybe an occasional good tune.