For today’s blog I’m going to run an excerpt of Bernie Corbett’s interview with Albert Maysles who directed the legendary Stones documentary Gimme Shelter. Naturally, we used snippets of this interview throughout 50 Licks, which you can buy by clicking here.
Tell me the story of how Gimme Shelter came about?
I got a call from Haskell [Wexler] one day, who was an old friend of ours, and he said he’d just been talking with the Stones and they were about to begin their tour and they were going to be at the Plaza hotel the next day and we might want to look them up. So we went to the Plaza, knocked on their door. We didn’t really know their music but we went to their concert the next day, which was in Baltimore and we said, “These guys are good.” We wanted to make something that was not just a concert film. We spent a lot of the next two years filming them and ended up making two movies, Gimme Shelter and Get Yer Ya Ya’s out, though that was more of the Madison Square Garden concert.
So you weren’t a fan beforehand?
My brother was into all that kind of music.
Did you know what kind of movie you wanted to make? Anything you were patterning yourself after?
We didn’t establish any ground rules, it was just, “We’ll tag along.” We didn’t draw upon any of the rock n roll movies that had come before, we were just focused on what was happening in those moments. We had developed a film making philosophy which was totally observational. We never asked questions, no interviews, no host, just what’s happening.
What was your impression of Mick and Keith?
I didn’t get to know Mick much as he was very quiet. Not so with Keith, He was much more conversational. When I was filming Keith in ‘69, I don’t know whether it was drugs or what, but his face looked so ragged, lined, and he looked so much older. He looks much younger now than he did then. I’ve seen Keith and Mick over the years. When Martin Scorsese did Shine A Light I got a call from Martin the day before and he said “I’ve got 18 35 millimeter cameras and I’d love to have you come with your video camera. Besides, both Mick and Keith have asked you to come.”
Of course I have to ask you about what happened at Altamont.
The events at Altamont really turned out to be a characterization of that era. It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if drugs had been legalized, as they should have been, then and now. I think there would have been a proper security force and none of that ruckus from the Hell’s Angels.
I got to understand the problem was that the guy who would normally be in control of the Hell’s Angels somehow or other he wasn’t there. And instead they got this younger guy who was totally inexperienced and things fell apart
What did you think of the way Altamont was covered in the mainstream press?
The press got it wrong when they called it a murder. To this day, we don’t know what the motive may have been. It really should be called a killing. The New York Times piece by Vincent Canby was titled “Making Murder Pay.” [obviously offfended]. Did you read Pauline Kael’s review of Gimme Shelter? It was totally, totally wrong. The basic premise of her article was that we staged everything. We didn’t stage anything. I still get so angry when I see the journalists from that time who accused the Stones of being responsible for the tragedy because of the titles of the songs and so forth. It’s terrible. It’s unfortunate and unfair.
In many cases, they didn’t even get the basic facts straight.
So many newspapers had Sympathy for the Devil as the song listed that they were playing during the killing but really it was Under My Thumb.
Do you think of Gimme Shelter as a film about the end of the 60s?
People have described Gimme Shelter as portending the demise of the 60s. When you look at it, and you know how things turned out even worse in the next two years, you look at it like a prediction of the future. And people have said that when we filmed the Beatles in 64 and then the Stones in 69, that the films are sort of like the bookends of the 60s.
I had read somewhere that Mick told you he didn’t want to do any acting. Is that right?
He didn’t know that that’s never a requirement of ours. It might seem that we were staging things by having Mick take a look at the killing on the moviola, but what happened was during the filming, Mick had said, “Once you start filming, I want to take a look.” So he’s the one who asked for it.
Where does Gimme Shelter rate in your body of work as a filmmaker?
I’ve made at least 30 films and it usually comes down to three that are especially great, Gimme Shelter, Salesman, and Gray Gardens.
Thinking back on it, what do you remember most about making Gimme Shelter?
We were lucky in so many ways. Pennebaker’s film on Dylan is a very good film but I think he was unlucky in that, due to no fault of Pennebaker’s, Dylan is not that easy to film, very distant. Not so with the Stones, we were right in close with them all the time.