1970 / Color / 1:33 flat / 91 min. / November 14, 2000 / 39.95
Starring Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts,
Bill Wyman, Marty Balin, Melvin Belli, Dick Carter, Jerry Garcia, Meredith Hunter,
Paul Kantner, Michael Lang, Phil Lesh, Grace Slick, Ian Stewart, Ike Turner,
Tina Turner, Bob Weir
Cinematography Ron Dorfman, George Lucas, Albert Maysles, David Maysles
Film Editors Joanne Burke, Ellen Giffard, Kent McKinney
Original Music Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Produced by The Brothers
Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles andCharlotte Zwerin
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Maysles brothers had a knack for being at the right place and the right time, and this
searing documentary, meant to capitalize on a rock concert billed as Woodstock West, started
out as a performance piece on the Rolling Stones, and ended up being possibly the first
filmed record of a murder as it happened. Taken now as a chronicle of the souring of the
60s Love Generation, Gimme Shelter is a fascinating piece of history.
The Rolling Stones are covered while on tour in the United States, performing and
interacting with other rock stars like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. In San Francisco,
Attorney Melvin Belli helps set up a colossal rock show at the Altamont Raceway. Only a couple of
months have transpired since Woodstock and the idea is to put on a huge free concert, presumably
to cash in on the expected merchandising. The deal is set and the show goes on, but the Stones make a
fatal managerial decision by hiring the Hell's Angels as stage security. Altamont starts
as a Rock show but turns into a disaster through drugs, alcohol and the unrestrained brutality
of the Angels.
Astonishing in its clarity, Gimme Shelter stands as a record of the Ultimate Bad Scene, where
fate conspires against the best-laid plans of all involved. We see it happening, from the
slick deal making and obstacle-flattening done by speakerphone from Melvin Belli's office, to the
easygoing nonchalance of the Stones themselves, and finally to the concert where everything goes
horribly wrong. The joy of concert going is transformed into something else, as a crowd far removed
from the image of flower power becomes an unruly mob in the face of dozens of dangerous Hell's
Angels. 1969 had the myth of Woodstock, but mostly was nothing but bad news: the Manson murders,
the previous year's Mei Lei Massacre coming to light. Altamont was the nail in the coffin - the
illusion of the Peace & Love 60s was officially dead.
The creepiness of the concert is shown from all sides, with the Stones at first petulant and
aloof to the mood of the unruly fans, and later making pitifully unsuccessful attempts at
peacemaking and control over their own security thugs. The situation was ugly the night before,
when the 'free concert' call brought out over 250,000 fans, and along with them
more than the usual number of troublemakers. Then the
Hell's Angels arrive, claiming a big piece of territory in front of the stage as
a parking area for their cycles (!) and pummeling anyone who disagrees. Thing go from ugly to worse,
as fights are brutally resolved by the uncontrollable Angels. If Woodstock
was lauded as a 'nation' of harmony, Altamont becomes a dysfunctional Hell right in front of our eyes.
The Maysles Brothers learned the lesson of the movie Woodstock, where not enough cameras
were available and some acts weren't even filmed. Sheer overkill was applied to the camera and
sound departments. There are 22 credited cameramen and 12 sound recordists, (George Lucas and
Walter Murch among them) and the coverage is phenomenal - there's a palpable you-are-there feeling
unshared by any other rock'n roll film.
Even more powerful is the wisdom and self-awareness that the directors apply to their final edit of
the picture. Woodstock was expanded into a grand statement of the Myth of a generation; these
guys just print the facts and let the footage be its own reason for being. There's no attempt to
hide the not-always-meritorious behavior of the Stones, and no attempt to indict the Hell's Angels
beyond the ample visual evidence. The brilliance of the Maysles brothers comes through in their
filming of Mick Jagger after the fact, as he's being shown their rough cut. He sits in front of
what has to be one of the first flatbed editing tables,
and watches the footage with a combination of disgust and discomfort. You can see him realizing that
this undeniably negative image will follow him forever. As documentarians, the Maysles
have shown reality, and its leading player reacting to it. It's a prime moment in media awareness.
There's nothing like seeing Gimme Shelter with a crowd, but Criterion's DVD expands the
experience with extras that give a journalistic extension
to the movie's meaning. Commentary is provided by co-directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin,
along with their collaborator Stanley Goldstein. An actual radio show from KSAN, an 'Altamont wrapup' program
where a local deejay tried to get to the bottom of the controversy, is particularly dramatic.
There's an extensive still gallery as well. The disc comes with a 40+page booklet with articles
and essays by people close to the event, as well as critics; one contributor was the leader of the
Hell's Angels that night, Sonny Barger. I've heard the story of Altamont first-hand from a friend who
was there, but never got the perspectives presented here.
Other extras on the disc are the usual trailers and filmographies, done in Criterion's thorough style,
a restoration demonstration, and, for completists, a set of unseen Rolling Stones Madison Square
The transfer is the uncensored 30th Anniversary cut, from the camera original. 16mm never looked
this good. The excellent audio is in remixed Dolby digital and DTS.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gimme Shelter rates:
Supplements: Numerous, see above.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 17, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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