17 August 2005

The power of music

This is a review of the music documentaries Gimme Shelter and Femi Kuti: Live at the Shrine. A newer version of this essay is at Movie Habit.

I just watched Gimme Shelter the other night because someone recommended it (at a panel about documentary films at the World Affairs Conference). What a creepy, disheartening portrait. 1969 brought the Summer of Love, but followed it with the Rolling Stones' free concert at the Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco. Four people died at that event, including one who pulled a gun and was stabbed to death by a biker, one of the notorious Hell's Angels. (I was at a concert in San Francisco a couple of years earlier, at the age of four, during which some of the Hell's Angels provided "security." I was terrified of the big, bad bikers, even after people assured me that they were there to protect people. I found them unnervingly drunk and unpredictable. For the record, I was afraid of the police, too; there always seemed to be drugs around and I remember the paranoid flurries when the cops came near.)

By the time the albums Sticky Fingers and later Exile on Main Street came out, I was crazy for the Stones. I put a giant poster of Mick Jagger by my bed, and kissed it often. I was jealous when he married the exotic and impossibly glamorous Bianca. When the Stones played in Denver I begged my parents to take me, to smuggle me in, to let me dress in high heels and pretend I was a grownup. But they knew about Altamont and wisely refused. (I can say they were wise now that I am a parent, despite knowing that my parents went to that Denver show and had a great time, no violence.) I finally got to see them play a stadium show when I was in high school -- it was a great show despite the vast distance from the stage.

So I found watching the Altamont concert come together and fall apart in Gimme Shelter quite disillusioning. Having been a huge fan of Mick Jagger in particular, it was sad to see his staginess at every turn. Charlie Watts, the band's laconic drummer, reacts honestly to the footage of the concert and the calls to a radio station from a Hell's Angel. But every word Jagger speaks seems calculated, every gesture inadequate to the occasion. Mick is a fantastic performer, in his role as the strutting, sexed-up frontman. But as the Altamont gig disintegrated, which it had started doing well before The Rolling Stones took the stage, he comes off like an ineffectual parent: "If that guy doesn't stop it..."

One clip shows him watching footage of himself responding to an interviewer, who is asking some silly question about whether the Stones are more satisfied (in the wake of their hit "Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)." "Sexually, yes. Financially, no. Philosophically, we're trying." "Rubbish," he comments on his own performance for the press. But it seems that if there's a camera rolling, anything Jagger does is likely to be a performance.

And what for? Sex sells, I thought as I watched Mick prance and preen about the stage, joking about whether the audience would like to see his trousers fall down. But sells what?

Tonight I watched the new Femi Kuti video, Live at the Shrine, which I'm reviewing for Movie Habit. This guy has something to sing about. He's a star in Africa, where he lives in Lagos, Nigeria and has continued in his father's footsteps. Fela Kuti, Femi's father, was an outspoken critic of corruption and promoter of African unity, and Femi now wears his mantle. Every Sunday night, Femi performs at a hall he built in memory of his father, the New Afrika Shrine, the stage full of musicians and dancers. Scenes from the Sunday night "Jumps," as the shows are called, are intercut with interviews with people in the band, street scenes, and interviews with Femi himself. I know "desperate poverty" and "war-torn nation" sound like cliches, but they fit Nigeria all too well. Kuti talks about how Nigerians can't call themselves independent if they can't get electricity and water consistently and constantly have to ask for aid. He uses his music to send out the word about conditions in Africa. To me, the lyrics sound preachy and overly political, but in their context, what else could they be? He could sing about romantic troubles, but chooses instead to sing about what it's like to be oppressed, not only by your circumstances but by your own choices.

Femi talks about how dance is a kind of communication without language, and I understood this watching not only his constant motion but also the writhing, jittering women onstage. It is a tribal art, a release of all kinds of tension for participants and observers alike. Suddenly I could see the scantily clad go-go dancers onstage with The Isley Brothers in that context. Of course people use music, dance, and sex to get their message across: Everyone understands the language.

I found Gimme Shelter so deflating by comparison. Mick Jagger urges the restive crowd at Altamont to just "sit back and get in the groove," but then they play "Under My Thumb." The song has a groove but is about a guy who has discovered how great it is to have power over his woman. Then the deadly violence breaks out and the rest is history. When the "greatest rock and roll band on Earth," as they liked to proclaim, had a chance to make a difference, they forgot about the power they had to say something positive and just threw down another hit. Of course, to be fair, Femi Kuti exhorts his audience not to throw their beverages, giving up and saying, "You're too drunk to hear my request." The plastic bottles -- and resin chairs -- fly throughout his next song. But no one kills anyone, and the message Femi brings to that hall full of dancers seems to lift everyone up a little higher than they were before.

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