Gimme Shelter, David and Albert Maysles’ 1970 documentary about the Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway, starts with a man’s voice. “Everybody seems to be ready—are you ready?” he says. Cheers erupt. “For the first time in three years, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, the Rolling Stones!”
The first Stone we meet is the drummer, Charlie Watts, riding a burro on a wet and empty highway while holding a rifle and wearing a knight’s helmet. Watching Gimme Shelter in 2009, we think, “That poor animal.” Watts looks happy and embarrassed. A jump cut, and he’s traded the helmet for a Stars-and-Stripes top hat. America, anarchy, absurdity. The announcer repeats, “The Rolling Stones,” but with less oomph. We’re expecting a cannon blast, a ringing power chord, not someone fumbling into a microphone.
The audio stays on the concert, with singer Mick Jagger telling the audience, “We gonna have a look at you.” The film freezes on Watts and his burro, a still-picture effect that the Maysles’ underscore with the non-organic sound of a clicking camera. Jagger’s having a look at his audience, but we’re looking at Watts. “We’re gonna see how beautiful you are,” Jagger says; another freeze on Watts, another bogus shutter-click. “Beautiful” puts us squarely between Woodstock and Altamont, the language of the times. Watts tilts his head and smiles coyly; an ugly man, he’s playing at being beautiful. The disconnected sound and visuals are having fun with each other.
“Whoo! All right. Aw, New York City, you talk a lot, let’s have a look at you.”
Our eyes are still on Watts and his burro. The audio locates us in New York City, but the wet and empty highway could be anywhere. There’s a crane in the background, a mill, parked boxcars. It looks more like Toledo than New York. The sound tells us one thing while the visuals suggest another.
“Let’s have a look at New York City,” Jagger says. Taken out of context, his comments sound repetitive, contrived, and inane, and maybe that’s the point.
Jagger appears at Watts’ side. Watts is now down from the burro and holds two guitars in their cases and a snare drum tucked under his arm. Jagger, in an oatmeal-colored cape, holds nothing. We get the impression that Watts is carrying the instruments for Jagger, which says something about power and hierarchy (or it doesn’t).
Jagger whispers to Watts—maybe “Stay here”—then runs up the road. His hands are wrapped up in his cape. He looks cold, which lessens him. An effort is being made to show these people as frail or ridiculous.
After jogging a few steps, he turns back to Watts. We get our first close-up of Jagger’s face. It happens in mid-turn, and the continuity isn’t perfect. He moves at a slower rate close up. His face isn’t quite the caricature of later years, and he’s peculiarly handsome, with light brown hair and bleary eyes. At first he seems to appraise Watts, the way a director might. An amused smile revises into something more nebulous.
Back to the first shot—our mind supplies continuity by thinking around the inserted close-up. Jagger stands in the road with two other men, one pointing a camera at Watts. A police car is parked sideways, possibly indicating a roadblock.
Watts pretends to scold the burro, and the camera quickly pans to show Jagger running back into frame. He takes the Stars-and-Stripes hat from Watts, and suddenly we’re onstage with the band in New York. The camera catches Jagger placing the same Stars-and-Stripes hat on his head. The hat is the mechanism that conveys the transition.
Until now there’s not been a note of music, and only one credit: A MAYSLES FILM PRODUCTION.
Eighteen years later, the U2 concert film, Rattle and Hum, also opens with applause, but it’s less discreet. The film proper isn’t even underway when a stadium roar plays over the Paramount Pictures logo. The power chord, which was absent from the Stones film, hits us at the nine-second mark. “This song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, we’re stealing it back,” warns lead singer Bono, invoking the era of Altamont. He wants us to understand that he and his band mates are rebels—in contrast to the Maysles’ approach, which rarely indulges such self-mythologizing. Gimme Shelter is an auteur’s picture; here it’s the band’s show all the way.
The song is “Helter Skelter,” which director Phil Joanou shoots in black and white (the film switches to color midway through). A track-mounted camera glides past the stage, showing the band under pulsing stage lights. Bono shouts the pay-off lyric: “And you see me again!” This is his first close-up, not cold and wrapped in a shawl but rock-star beautiful in boots, suspenders and cowboy vest. Joanou cuts to a POV shot of what the band sees from the stage: tens of thousands of banner-waving fans roaring as Bono throws his hands over his head and flings back his hair. This is the third shot in the film, and it’s important for context: U2 is a band that packs arenas. We need to know this before we can go on.
The audience is visible in nearly every shot of the opening sequence. For the most part they’re dim shapes in the distance, a moving texture. They validate what the band is doing onstage. Their collective approval is what gives the performance its lift.
Rock ‘n’ roll is about a lot of people liking the same thing.
At the last note, a credit fills the screen: first, Paramount Pictures Presents, then, in block letters so enormous they have to pull back to fit the frame, U2 RATTLE AND HUM. Bono is exhausted; he crouches with his back to the audience and breathes heavily into the microphone. It feels a bit stagey, like something he does every night. Watching in 1974, we think, “Why is he hyperventilating?”
For the credits, Joanou presents a montage of U2’s Irish homeland, though most of the film concentrates on the band’s tour of America. We get a helicopter skimming the Irish coast, scenes of boatyards, factories, and belching smokestacks. It’s an origin story told in ninety seconds: here’s where the band comes from. Another U2 song plays, an elegiac folk number sung by guitarist The Edge. The factory montage dissolves into a close pan of the four group members sitting and chatting in an undefined outdoor space. Because the music on the soundtrack blocks out their conversation, we’re left to assume that what they’re saying is either not worth hearing or none of our business, possibly both.
After the credits the band gives a short interview in their hangar-like rehearsal studio. Bono and the boys sit on black crates across from the interviewer. An awkward silence drags out until finally The Edge asks, “Is film expensive?”
“Nah, it’s the cheapest thing,” the interviewer jokes. He’s an American and has a nasally voice.
Bono reminds someone off-screen, “Is that beer coming?” He pantomimes holding a beer can, and it’s his most charming and least self-conscious moment in the film.
More delays, and soon the band gets the giggles. It’s not clear what causes the delay or why it’s eating up screen time. The film works hard to sell us on the idea of the band’s sense of humor.
The interviewer starts, “We’re here in Dublin recording the new songs, right?” It’s a dumb question and everyone knows it. Bassist Adam Clayton, in particular, has a hard time keeping it together. Amid all the barely suppressed mirth, the interviewer says, “I knew this would never work.”
A sudden splice; the tilt of Clayton’s head changes slightly. The editing feels deliberately roughed-up after so many expensive shots in the opening montage.
Bono has his beer now, a big mother. The interviewer tries again: “What has happened between the writing of The Joshua Tree album and recording The Joshua Tree album and the tour and now the new songs?”
Again, the band can’t stop laughing. Something’s not being shared with us. We feel like we’re not being let in on a joke.
“Adam?” Bono asks, turning the question over to his bassist. Floods of giggles, and the scene jumps to the band playing a piece of Bo Diddley inspired street-rock called “Desire.” The film puts a premium on the band’s inarticulateness when they’re not playing music. That inarticulateness, it’s suggested, is what makes them rock ‘n’ roll.