EXCLUSIVE: Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwein, is widely considered one of the greatest music documentaries of all time.
The film, which chronicled the Rolling Stones’ U.S. tour in 1969, culminating in the Altamont Free Concert in San Francisco, premiered 50 years ago this week and comes 51 years after the controversial show, where Meredith Hunter died at the hands of the Hells Angels.
Gimme Shelter captures onscreen both how the concert was put together and the moment that Hunter was stabbed by the bikers, who were providing security at the event.
The film explores a fascinating moment in time — the end of the 1960s and the peace and love explosion, coming months after Woodstock — and showcases the uglier side of America, fresh from riots. It also captures one of the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll bands in their prime both in the studio and live.
Porter Bibb produced the film, calling it a look at the “dark underbelly” of America in a wide-ranging interview with Deadline, where he discusses how the documentary came about, how he wasn’t scared of the Hells Angels and teases that there’s footage of the Stones after the event that still hasn’t been seen.
Bibb, a childhood friend of Hunter S. Thompson and the first publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, also discusses his time working with Jann Wenner and how he’s now in talks with a number of streamers and Johnny Depp to adapt his book on CNN founder Ted Turner into a scripted series.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved in producing documentaries, and how did you meet Albert and David Maysles?
PORTER BIBB: Right out of college, I had interned at Newsweek and they gave me a job when I graduated in 1959. They sent me to Washington to be White House correspondent [during the Eisenhower administration] because they didn’t have one at the time. Time Inc. had a terrific film and TV division, so I said, “Why don’t we?” The magazine was doing single-subject issues on [race] and drug culture. I said each one of these would be a great documentary film for television. I met all of the top documentarians in the early 1960s, trying to find out who to work with, and I ended up meeting with Albert and David Maysles. We ended up making a film for Newsweek. I liked them so much that I said: “Guys, you need a producer. You’re really good filmmakers, but you don’t know how to raise money or market your movies.” So I became the third Maysles brother and left Newsweek. The first thing we made was [door-to-door Bible-seller documentary] Salesman.
DEADLINE: I understand that you originally had intended to make a documentary about Woodstock, is that right?
BIBB: We made about $1.50 on Salesman. It had about a week’s theatrical run, and documentaries in those days were persona non grata in the movie theaters, so I said: “There’s a rock ‘n’ roll revolution going on in this country – my friend D.A Pennebaker had just made the [Bob] Dylan movie [Don’t Look Now], and we need to look to do something and Woodstock was likely to happen.” We were negotiating with the Woodstock guys six months before the concert. I talked Warner Bros. into theoretically backing the film and providing the capital. What happened was, a couple of days before Woodstock was supposed to happen, I was sitting with Ted Ashley, who was then the boss of Warner Bros, and he said, “Porter, this is going to be interesting, but my legal department wants you to comply with one thing before we put the money in your pocket.” He said, “You have to get a completion bond,” and I said, “You know you can’t get a completion bond for a documentary because you don’t know what’s going to happen. What if it rains?” We had 50, 60 crew people lined up but didn’t have the capital to buy the raw stock film. So, after a lot of yelling and screaming, Michael Wadleigh got a bank loan and paid for the thing, and he took the crew to Woodstock … and they made a beautiful film.
I came back to the Maysles brothers and said, “We have to do something. Everybody is really pissed off on the West Coast about Woodstock because it became the epicenter of the new rock generation and it all started in San Francisco.” So I suggested having a free concert in San Francisco. Woodstock was in late August and this was November, and we still didn’t have anything going. We’d picked up a short assignment from the Rolling Stones, who were doing a U.S. tour, and they were the only consequential band that didn’t play Woodstock. I talked them into organizing a free concert in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, David and Albert were filming them in Boston and Washington and New York, and then they went down to Muscle Shoals. I asked Jann Wenner, who can organize a free concert, and he said to call Melvin Belli. He’d just taken on Squeaky Fromme — who [later] tried to assassinate Gerald Ford — and he’s hungry for headlines. I called him up and said, “I have a new client for you. It’s the children of San Francisco, they want to hire you to put on a free rock ‘n’ roll concert headlined by the Rolling Stones.” He laughed and said, “If you can be in my office by 9 a.m.” – he’s in San Francisco, and I’m in New York and it’s mid-afternoon – “I’ll give it some thought.” I hung up and immediately got on a flight and called every TV and radio station and said Melvin was going to make an important announcement and there’s going to be 50 vestal virgins with rose petals. I got to Mel’s office at about 6 a.m. and there were 50 young girls with baskets of rose petals, and when we came in, they showered him. And he was hooked.
DEADLINE: How did you persuade the Rolling Stones to do a deal for the documentary? Mick Jagger is widely considered quite a shrewd businessman.
BIBB: We didn’t even talk about a deal until after Altamont. I flew back to New York with Jagger and the Stones, and he was saying, “How much are you going to pay for the rights?” I said this was a free concert, there were no rights. I said, “What we will do is cut a deal for the soundtrack album,” because in those days, the soundtrack of a concert film made more money than the film itself, and Ron Schneider, their manager, said there will be no soundtrack album unless the Stones get half of everything. I couldn’t resolve that, so I let it go, and in the end there was no soundtrack album. They didn’t get one penny out of the film. That’s a lot to do with the fact that Mick wanted to exonerate themselves because a lot of people at that time in the media were blaming the Stones for the killing of Meredith Hunter, and that was weighing heavily on Jagger and the Stones.
We co-operated very much in the post-production process. You see Mick coming to our studio in New York to look at the footage, and we went to London to film additional backstory footage that never made it into the film. The relationship was very positive, even if there was no deal on the film.
DEADLINE: That footage isn’t in the film. Has it ever been seen by the public?
BIBB: A documentary [filmmaker] in London called me a couple of years ago to see if we could dig that out. Jump to what happened between the Maysles and me, as we were editing the film, Life magazine offered us $50,000 for one frame of the Hells Angels killing [Hunter]. I screamed and hollered and the Maysles said absolutely not because that will tip off the story of the film, but I said, “Everybody knows the story of the film, it’ll put you on the map if you’re on the cover of Life magazine.” They never did, and at that point I said, “You guys are out of your mind, and I can’t live with you on this basis,” so I basically walked out of the studio and I sold my interest to them. In the end, they bought me out. I thought they were being commercially unrealistic.
DEADLINE: Were you and the Maysleses worried about what the Hells Angels might do?
BIBB: We had death threats, and the Angels actually sent some of their California guys to New York to break into the studio. We had FBI and police protection during the post-production process. We carefully secured the negatives and made duplicates to do all the editing so that they couldn’t get anything. They were so pathetically unthreatening that we weren’t bothered by that.
DEADLINE: You weren’t scared of the Angels?
BIBB: Before Altamont and Woodstock, we’d go into dangerous places like Berkeley, where the students were rioting and the cameramen for the networks didn’t want to risk being beaten up, so we shot a lot of footage for the networks. That kind of toughened us up, so we were not really intimidated.
DEADLINE: Didn’t the Hells Angels ask for money for being in the film?
BIBB: They wanted a piece of the action and full credit, but that was not on the table.
DEADLINE: Most people remember Gimme Shelter for the footage of the killing of Meredith Hunter. Were you aware of what was going on at that moment?
BIBB: We had three cameras on Meredith Hunter. He had been waving a pistol. He pulled his gun out because the Angels were beating people with their leaded pool cues; they were really hurting people. At some point Meredith got ticked off, and he pulled out a gun, and then they all converged on him.
DEADLINE: Did he fire any shots?
BIBB: There were no shots. He was just waving it around. Everybody was high at that concert, but he was actually trying to get the Angels to stop beating spectators, and he thought if he waved his gun, they would go away. They didn’t.
I have always thought it was more than a little ironic that Altamont happened [the day before] Pearl Harbor Day, just as the FBI were raiding the Black Panthers headquarters in South Central while the Angels were beating Altamont concert-goers and finally stabbed a Black spectator to death not more than five feet from the Rolling Stones.
DEADLINE: Looking back now, 50 years, what did you make of the events at Altamont?
BIBB: Woodstock was the peace, love and joy of the 1960s, and Altamont was the dark underbelly. The 1960s was much more like Altamont in real life. I always looked on Altamont as the real side of the 1960s; it was a very difficult decade for this country.
DEADLINE: The list of people who worked on Gimme Shelter is incredible, including George Lucas and Barbara Kopple.
BIBB: George Lucas was one of our star cameramen. Documentary filmmakers in those days were sheer geniuses at being in the right place at the right time. The equipment was very primitive compared to what’s available today, but the person who made that film was not David or Albert, it was Charlotte Zwerin. She did a genius job of putting it all together and never got enough credit. Two of our camera people on the Altamont film also won Oscars for best documentary.
DEADLINE: What happened after you fell out with David and Albert?
BIBB: David and Albert were so pissed off with me for leaving, that on the film credit, they put me down as associate producer. Variety was kind of enough to credit me as a producer, but I didn’t have it in me to bend them over for credits. Everybody did a spectacular job making it, and I was just glad it got into the can and screened.
DEADLINE: You went on to become publisher of Rolling Stone. How did that happen?
BIBB: Jann Wenner sent a reporting crew to Altamont and, despite being nearly bankrupt, got a National Magazine award for their coverage. So, Jann and I stayed in touch and I helped him raise $10 million. There was no publisher or business guy, so I said if we were really going to make this work, we had to be headquartered in New York, not San Francisco, because that’s where the advertising and publishing industry is centered. I stayed with Rolling Stone for almost four years and realized that I was 10 or 15 years older than anywhere else.
DEADLINE: You also grew up with Hunter S. Thompson –, another Rolling Stone connection.
BIBB: I grew up with Hunter and helped bring him in and put him in the White House. The biggest challenge any of us at Rolling Stone ever faced was getting Hunter White House credentials. Hunter and I came together when we were about 6 years old and stayed friendly all the way to the end.
DEADLINE: In the ’90s, you wrote It Ain’t as Easy as It Looks, a biography about Ted Turner. That sounds like a whole other story.
BIBB: I told him it was an unauthorized book, and he said, “If you speak to anybody who works for me or is close to me, I’ll fire them.” I interviewed about 100 of his business colleagues, four of his kids, three of his wives and about 100 of his girlfriends, and nobody got fired. I’ve optioned the book several times to filmmakers who couldn’t get it on. The [networks] were all scared that Ted — who up until a few years ago was the largest shareholder of Time Warner — and they all said they don’t want to be sued by Ted Turner. I said: “Are you kidding? He bought 500 copies of my book and sent them out as Christmas presents.”
I wrote the book as a kind of 400-page treatment. It’s not just a story about another rich, old white man; this guy has done some incredible things, the story has to be told. He changed the whole concept of news.
We’re negotiating with Apple and Amazon and HBO Max about who’s going to make that. It’ll probably be a six-part series. There’s too much to tell and you’d have to shortchange people to pack it in to a feature. One of the people I’m dealing with is Johnny Depp, who was very tight with Hunter. I told him Ted Turner was his kind of guy. He hasn’t committed yet, but we’re talking.
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