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In Gimme Shelter and Femi Kuti: Live at the Shrine, two performers display their respective commitments to their communities in different ways.

Gimme Shelter gives a glimpse behind the scenes when the Rolling Stones staged a free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway in 1969 and a gun-wielding fan was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angels biker in the audience in front of them. In Live at the Shrine the charismatic Femi Kuti answers the call of music to help care for his fellow Africans. In the two documentaries, performers reveal different aspects of the power of music and the accompanying obligations conferred by this power.

Fame and Fortune

Kuti is central to his community of family and musicians, friends and fans
Kuti is central to his community of family and musicians, friends and fans

Femi Kuti: Live at the Shrine shows the Nigerian Afrobeat star in his element: preparing and performing his songs at the New Afrika Shrine, the dance hall and community center built by Femi to honor his father, Fela. Femi’s late father, Fela Kuti, famous for inventing Afrobeat, was also renowned for his political stance against corruption and capitalism — and for his womanizing. In Dutch director Raphaël Frydman’s collection of songs and interviews with Fela’s son, a man takes his role as a musician and famous person to heart. Fela is central to his community of family and musicians, friends and fans, always at work to better himself or the situation for people around him.

In sometimes stark contrast, Mick Jagger struts his way through the 1970 film Gimme Shelter. I finally watched this the other night, having been a fan of the Rolling Stones since I was a kid yet never having seen the infamous documentary about their free concert at Altamont, near San Francisco, which attracted 300,000 fans. Four people died, most notoriously a man who pulled a gun and was promptly stabbed to death by a one of the Hell’s Angels who some say were there to keep the peace. The show must go on, goes the saying, and it did.

Through a Lens, Darkly

If there were a camera rolling, anything Jagger did was likely a performance
If there were a camera rolling, anything Jagger did was likely a performance

Watching the Altamont concert come together and fall apart in Gimme Shelter was rather disillusioning. Having been a huge fan of Mick Jagger in particular, I found it sad to see his staginess. Gimme Shelter shows the band members as they watch the footage of the Altamont show. Charlie Watts, the Stones’ laconic drummer, reacted honestly to the footage of the concert and a Hell’s Angel’s call to a radio station defending their actions. But every word Jagger spoke seemed calculated, his every gesture inadequate to the occasion. Jagger is a fantastic performer, in his role as the posing peacock of a frontman. But as the Altamont gig disintegrated, which it had started doing well before The Rolling Stones took the stage, Mick came off desperate, like a shrill yet ineffectual parent: “If that guy doesn’t stop it right now, we’re not going to play any more!”

In one clip, Jagger watches 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).” Jagger answers the interviewer, “Sexually, yes. Financially, no. Philosophically, we’re trying.” “Rubbish,” Jagger spits, commenting on his own performance for the press. But it seemed that if there were a camera rolling, anything Jagger did was likely a performance.

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

Bringing light to Lagos

With a stage full of musicians and dancers, Kuti’s energetic Sunday night “jumps,” as the shows are called, attract locals and people from all over Africa and beyond. Live at the Shrine intersperses these concert sequences with interviews with Femi, members of his band, his sisters, fans, and scenes of street life. When he is not performing, we find Femi focused on practicing, playing endless scales on his trumpet, dancing, smoking, singing constantly.

I know descriptors like “desperate poverty” and “war-torn nation” have become journalist boilerplate, but they fit Nigeria all too well. The idealistic and committed younger Kuti declares that Nigerians can’t really call themselves independent if they can’t get electricity and water consistently and continually have to beg other countries for aid. In fact, a running theme in the interviews with him and his sisters and fans is that there are no lights. Instead of accepting this imposition, Femi takes responsibility for the obligations he feels his fame has placed on him. He works at his gift, music, to send out the word about conditions in Africa. He sets about every task without assuming for one minute that anything should come easily.

To me, Femi Kuti’s songs sound preachy and overly political. Kuti’s lyrics only transport me from the worries of my own day-to-day existence right into someone else’s fears. In the context of Femi’s life in Lagos, however, what else could these songs be? He could sing about romantic troubles, but instead he voices his take on Africans and their oppression, by their circumstances and by their choices as well.

The Language of Dance

In one of the interview segments, Femi Kuti says dance is a kind of communication without language, and I understood this watching his constant motion, and that of the writhing, jittering women in their African costumes on the stage of the New Afrika Shrine. Dance is a tribal art, a release of all kinds of tension for participants and observers alike. I felt, watching them, I now had a context for the scantily clad go-go dancers that had mystified me when I saw The Isley Brothers in concert a few years ago, or for Ike and Tina Turner’s incredibly sexual performance on Gimme Shelter. Of course people use music, dance, and sex to get their message across: everyone understands the language.

When everyone returns to their hotel room one night, Mick dances to one of the tunes in a hotel room, while everyone else sits around, tests the beds, and comes to a stop for the day. But Mick’s still hearing the beat and dancing to it. In Live at the Shrine, Kuti has built a community center that also serves as their performance venue — that houses him and his family in a comfortable apartment. In this sanctum, he dances with a woman, but the intensity with which he feels the beat repels her, regardless of any other intimacy they share at other times, and Kuti remains set apart from everyone else in the room in his allegiance to music above all.

Watching Gimme Shelter is demoralizing, a bad acid trip that can’t be stopped once it’s started. Mick Jagger wheedles the restive crowd at Altamont to just “sit back and get in the groove,” but then the band plays “Under My Thumb.” While the song does have a groove, it is also about a guy who has discovered the joys of having power over his woman. I was dismayed to hear the “greatest rock and roll band on Earth,” as the Stones liked to call themselves, abandon their chance to wield their influence in a positive way and just throw down another hit, and one that basically advocates disrespect. And the Altamont crowd remained restless: A man pulled a gun, the biker pulled his knife, and the rest became history.

To be fair, when he introduces one of his songs, Femi Kuti pleads with the Shrine audience not to throw their beverages but quickly gives up, saying, “You’re too drunk to hear my request.” The plastic bottles — and resin chairs — fly throughout his next song. But no one seems to get hurt, and the message Femi’s music brings to that hall full of dancers seems to lift everyone’s spirits a little higher than they were before.

DVD Extras

Fans of Femi Kuti will appreciate the series of bonus interviews in which he discusses his political beliefs, history, and explains the origins and lyrics of some of his songs. Kuti’s songs are more compelling than his interviews, however; he often seems impatient to get back to his music. (I found it useful to turn on the English subtitles and fast-forward to read the text of the interviews.) For those who want more context, a booklet included with the DVD provides song lyrics and some historical background.

Gimme Shelter has some worthwhile clips, including additional concert footage, radio news broadcasts, and a backstage scene with Tina Turner chatting with Mick Jagger while Ike Turner practices in the background.

Sound and Picture

Both of these documentaries are notable for their content and not their sound and picture quality. Gimme Shelter features some excellent performances of the Rolling Stones’ hits that I had never heard (“Under My Thumb” excepted, of course). Some of the Gimme Shelter extra segments have terrible sound, and the heavy accents of the impassioned speakers can make the interviews in Femi Kuti hard to follow.