The Influence

Tina Havelock Stevens says Gimme Shelter, the classic 1970 documentary about The Rolling Stones, shows her something different every time she watches it. By Maddee Clark.

Tina Havelock Stevens

Mick Jagger performing in the 1970 film Gimme Shelter.
Mick Jagger performing in the 1970 film Gimme Shelter.
Credit: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

Tina Havelock Stevens is a Sydney-based artist with a background in observational documentary filmmaking, who has spent many years playing in bands as a drummer. She won the Blake Prize in 2018 and works in a way she describes as “improvisatory”, making audiovisual installations with spontaneously composed soundtracks.

Her recent survey show, Nature Extemporize, at The Substation in Newport, Melbourne, continues her exploration of time and space in audiovisual installations and neon works, examining the ambiguities of human nature and natural forces.

For The Influence, she has chosen to discuss Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary film on The Rolling Stones by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.

Let’s start by talking about the directors. Who are they?

Gimme Shelter has three directors. There was Albert Maysles on camera, his brother, David, who recorded sounds, and Charlotte Zwerin, who did the editing. They set out to document The Rolling Stones’ 1969 United States tour. The concluding concert at Altamont Speedway was covered by 22 cameras. Needless to say, the edit was huge. One of the operators was George Lucas. It turned out his camera didn’t work, but they put him in the credits regardless.

The camera operators later said of Zwerin: “I cannot believe how she used my footage.” History unfortunately sort of buried her; people only talk about the Maysles brothers. But her structuring that narrative – that was a big job.

The Maysles didn’t like the word “documentary” and preferred to go with the term “direct cinema” – which involved more improvising. No scripts and no explanatory voiceover and using lightweight handheld film cameras with the intention of catching truth and letting things unfold.

These three directors didn’t always do band films. Albert started out studying psychology. He was practising for three years, then he ended up travelling to Russia in 1955 and making a film about a psychiatric hospital and that was his transition into documentary. The three of them first joined forces directing Salesman in 1969 about four travelling Bible salesmen. The Maysles also made Grey Gardens and Albert shot Cut Piece, Yoko Ono’s performance piece from 1965.

When did you first see Gimme Shelter?

I would have watched the film first in the mid-1990s, when I was studying in Sydney. The next time I watched it would have been in 2000 or so, and in lockdown recently I projected the film onto my wall to try to get inside it again.

Zwerin builds this sense of anxiety for what happens later in the film, with the murder at the Altamont free concert. The whole thing was so badly organised, 300,000 people there and the Hells Angels working as security for $500 worth of beer. The minute Mick Jagger gets to Altamont, the films shows someone punching him in the face. Then it just got worse and worse from there. The Hells Angels of course end up becoming increasingly aggressive and one of the cameras captures the murder. What Charlotte cuts in there is incredible – people having really bad acid trips, nude people surfing awkwardly across the crowds, how uncomfortable it is.

The Stones were trying to re-create something like Woodstock, which had happened four months previously and was all peace and love, but it went the other way and the story became about the end of the “utopian” 1960s really.

Even The Stones back in those days would have had a different relationship to the camera than we do. They probably just thought, Someone’s gonna follow us around and we’re going to make a little concert film. We’ll look cool, we’ll be in choppers and cars. We’re all used to the presence of cameras now ... Back then I imagine The Stones wouldn’t have anticipated what might have been revealed.

This is where Zwerin was very clever again. It was her idea to throw the meta part in at the end, where they’re sitting at the Steenbeck 16mm editing suite watching themselves. That was a self-reflective layering, which I don’t think had ever really happened before in a documentary. In the last shot, it’s Mick Jagger looking back at the camera with that thousand-yard stare he has, that stare into nothingness at the end.

The camera also favours Charlie Watts, the drummer, a lot, which makes me think about relationships in bands. I always would say that the drummer sees everything, based up the back there watching it all unfold, observing the power inherent in live action, from the band members to the audience – one huge observational platform. [Watts died this week, aged 80.]

There’s a very intense sense of the gaze in there.

The ethics and aesthetics of direct cinema are what resonate with me. I like that it’s a very non-verbal way of working. When I was making commercial documentaries for television in the year 2000, I remember talking to a lot of people and wanting to find someone who wasn’t just acting, and that would be really hard now. You have to spend a long time hanging out and gaining trust to get them to forget there’s a camera in your hand. And it’s always nerve-racking when the subject of your documentary watches your film. It’s a compliment when you get it right but it’s a big responsibility.

I’d already made a few short experimental documentaries on video and super 8 before discovering Maysles’ films. I could really feel it, I can almost smell those locations and feel those handheld cameras and feel those decisions about where you go next, anticipating what someone might say, anticipating human energies. It’s not passive observation, more about using your sensibilities. I’m like a big sponge, I like taking the temperature of things and getting an understanding of the mood of things.

I made a film in a loose homage to Gimme Shelter called The Outside Is the Inside, when The Stones came to the Enmore Theatre in Sydney and played a special intimate show in the year 2003. I filmed it as a piece of direct cinema. The crowd grew to about 500 people out the front. They shut the street off, people were bringing their couches out and having a festival. They were all outside watching the open doors as the sound came out, as if that was the show, and I filmed that and showed it at Artspace a few years ago.

No one had iPhones in that time and everyone was all there for the one thing. That “common goal” business. They were all there, so excited, sitting, drinking, taking photos of each other with actual cameras.

I love to think of you attending as a Maysles fan rather than a Stones fan. I don’t know if you had them in mind when you shot Undoes the Wires, but I see parallels there.

Albert Maysles’ way of shooting is about trying to get to the truth as well as he can. At the time I wouldn’t have been consciously thinking about him, but the sensibility of observational cinema has obviously gone in. It’s a cellular influence. I filmed that footage during the APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation] summit and I just let it all roll on what was unravelling. That’s how I want to film everything. You improvise, you spend time waiting and noticing things. And there’s no explanatory voiceover. People aren’t that stupid.

Every time I watch Gimme Shelter, it shows me something different. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 28, 2021 as "Tina Havelock Stevens".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.

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