Gimme Shelter is generally considered one of the best rock documentaries ever made, perhaps one of the best documentaries on any topic. Turns out a lot of interesting footage wound up on the cutting room floor. We now know this because the recent reissue of the Rolling Stones’ iconic live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out includes a 27-minute documentary of the same name, cobbled together from Gimme Shelter outtakes. In one scene in Gimme Shelter, Mick Jagger changes his shirt backstage; what the new film reveals is that Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix were in the room too, geeking out over Keith’s new see-through guitar. So there’s an important artistic lesson here: You don’t need to put in all the good stuff. (And, as freakishly long as this post is, I did cut out some good stuff.)
As portrayed by the filmmakers (the brothers Albert and David Maysles, and editing director Charlotte Zwerin), Gimme Shelter was about the end of the Stones’ 1969 American tour (and, by accident, the end of the Sixties). The Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out documentary is specifically about the late November 1969 Madison Square Garden concerts that were recorded for the album. As with any Maysles production, nothing comes on a platter; you have to look actively, and if you do that, you will be rewarded, because Albert has a knack for pointing the camera at the most telling thing in the room. Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is a pretty loose patchwork, but it’s edited into something resembling a shape, and it tells a somewhat different, much more light-hearted story than Gimme Shelter. It’s also got a dandy punchline.
Even more than Gimme Shelter, the performance footage here emphasizes Jagger flapping about the stage like an ecstatic rooster, outfitted like a hippie superhero; the silliness of it is completely overshadowed by the fact that Jagger is vastly more joyous than satanic, exhorting the shaggy audience into ever-higher states of abandon as the band kicks out an ingeniously shambling boogaloo.
Keith Richards gets his star turn too: at Muscle Shoals Studios after the Garden shows, while they were working on Sticky Fingers, he plays a soulful, George Jonesy number on piano. (Like an apparition from the past, the Stones’ former keyboard player and then stalwart roadie Ian Stewart walks behind him as he finishes, and Keith peers back at him, seemingly seeking his approval.)
Curiously, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor are almost completely missing from the film; one has to wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that neither of them are in the band anymore. By contrast, drummer Charlie Watts, who is still in the Stones, gets as much face-time, possibly more, than anybody.
Charlie’s best (and worst) moment is an abortive photo shoot for the album cover on a foggy, deserted stretch of English motorway in winter, somewhere outside of Birmingham, weeks after the tour ended. It’s the same shoot that briefly opens Gimme Shelter, but here we get much more of a sense of what actually went on. Gamely dressed up in medieval garb, Charlie totes guitar cases while astride an adorable donkey. A small photo crew and Mick Jagger look on. “Get rid of the ‘elmet,” Jagger commands. Along for the ride is American journalist Stanley Booth, who would go on to write one of the definitive books about the band and a classic of rock journalism, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. It begins raining and they beat a hasty retreat to Mick’s white Bentley. The scene is bleak, pathetic and funny, like something out of Beckett, but it wouldn't have worked in the film.
It’s also revealing to note the songs they perform: “I’m Free,” “Under My Thumb,” and “Satisfaction,” all of which didn’t make the album, probably because those early pop songs didn’t quite fit the new, hip-rootsy Stones that Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out sought to portray.
Compared to the meticulously choreographed stadium concerts of today, the informality of it all is shocking – check out Charlie screwing around on the drums in the darkness behind Mick and Keith while they do “Prodigal Son” acoustic-style, or the way Keith abruptly stops playing at the top of the final verse, momentarily flustering Mick. Then Mick announces “Spider and the Lady” but then Keith begins playing a different song. “No,” Jagger announces, “we’re going to do something else,” and they kick into “You Gotta Move.” This is in front of 20,000 people, one of whom is Janis Joplin, smiling and bopping in a huge furry white hat. Before the show, Mick Taylor and Keith busily tune their guitars, a mindless task no major rock musician has done in 30 years.
The Maysles subtly signal the end of the concert by an exquisite shot of Mick hurling a basket of rose petals out in the crowd, the traditional ending for “Street Fighting Man,” perfectly bearing out Stanley Booth’s description of this very same incident: “Then he sailed the basket of red rose petals high out over the crowd where they hung for a moment. Then they started slowly to descend, floating on the high ringing howl that was rising from the crowd.” (Those words blew me away when I was ten years old and still do.) Then a beautiful accident, as Jagger strides off stage, slo-mo, toward the camera in his Uncle Sam top hat, just as the film in the camera runs out in a hot yellow blaze. Show over.
There’s a postscript, a scene at a helipad on a pier on San Francisco Bay. The Grateful Dead are there, cavorting in zonked-out hippie fashion, waiting for an overdue helicopter. Jagger comes sweeping in, surveys the unruly scene. and says with amused disbelief to no one in particular, “What is going on?” He gets the lay of the land from a chuckling and ultra-mellow Jerry Garcia, attired in an outtasite lavender wool poncho, and chats warmly with Ian Stewart. The vibe is sweet and playful.
The chopper won’t arrive until 2:00. "Right, film people, let’s do something!" Jagger proclaims. "We’ve got ten minutes." He pulls some hippie chick aside and imperiously directs the cameraman (probably Albert Maysles) to go "Tighter tighter tighter tighter tighter tighter" on her face, adorned with a groovy beaded headband and massive square shades. He plants a kiss on her forehead and steps away. Then he orders Charlie, poor, long-suffering Charlie, "Do the same thing as I did. Kiss the young lady, please."
Watts demurs. "Love is much more of a deeper thing than that," he replies, with mock hauteur, although he clearly kind of means it too. "It's not flippant, to be thrown away on celluloid. No."
Jagger laughs at his disobedient drummer. "OK," he says sheepishly, straight to camera, "we cut."
And then they headed off to Altamont.