Calling Gimme Shelter a concert film is like calling The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a film about sausage
making. The legend surrounding the concert that the film builds up to - a free concert that the Rolling Stones staged at
the Altamont Speedway in December, 1969, in response to that summer's Woodstock - has grown so large that no single
label can define either the event or the film. Setting out to capture an exciting rock and roll show, the Maysles Brothers
(Albert and David) enlisted a team of 16mm camera operators and were able to capture rare moments both onstage and
off. They did this by treating the Stones with the kind of high-intensity that is usually reserved for African big game and
Mount Everest. The camera closes in on Mick Jagger's face until it fills the screen, looming large and defining the tone of
the film. Jagger's face, a ghostly, drug-ravaged blur reflects the moral vagaries of a generation. The central question of
the film is how much of the responsibility for what happened lies on Jagger and his bandmates. It is not an easy question
to answer, and the movie (as well as the disc) reflects that.
The tone of Gimme Shelter is darker than virtually any other major film, fiction or non. I mentioned The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre earlier on purpose: I trace the tone, style, and aesthetic of that seminal horror film to
Gimme Shelter's grainy misery. Massacre, which was released four years later, is as much about the pit of
despair that the nation was sinking into at the time, caused mostly by the escalating Viet Nam war. Except that where
Massacre uses symbolism in a cerebral way Gimme Shelter is entirely from the gut. It's all there: The
naive, hopeless optimism (the frail white woman raising money for the Black Panther movement), the drugs (the refusal
of the concert promoters to offer assistance to those suffering bad acid trips), the proximity to danger (one man stands
on the side of the stage, inches away from Jagger, grimacing through some sort of drug-induced spasm, clearly a
predecessor to Leatherface's lip-licking), the misogyny (Tina Turner's embarrassingly sexual performance under the
watchful eye of then-husband Ike, a situation that we know a lot more about now than we did then), and, of course, the
death (during the concert a young black man pulls out a gun and is immediately stabbed by a member of the Hell's
Angels. Unbelievably, the Maysles' crew caught the moment on film and it is played at the end of the film, in a sort of
Zapruder loop, as if it were the inevitable consequence). There are racial overtones, unanswered questions, and a finale
that mixes images of events yet to come (the Stones helicoptered retreat strongly resembles the final pullout of the US
Embassy in Saigon five years later) with apocalyptic images as potent as in any fictional film. At the end of the show
thousands and thousands of concertgoers feel their way into the dark and straight through to the dawn, trying to find
the road. This could be Mad Max, Night of the Living Dead, or Dawn of the Dead. At least in
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre there is some sense of escape. Gimme Shelter seems to suggest that the
world ended that night and, in a sense, a certain kind of idealism did. Woodstock, only a few months earlier, failed to
save the world, Nixon's Watergate was only a few years away, and the war was only getting worse.
As for the Stones, there is a sense that they are complicit. A remarkable moment occurs during "Under My Thumb" when
Jagger and a young man at the front of the stage share a long exchange that speaks volumes about the event. The Hell's
Angels had already beaten fans with pool cues and tussled with opening act Jefferson Airplane. When this fan, privy to
some unseen violence in the crowd mouths to Jagger "You have to stop. It's no good," he and the singer stare at each
other. After what seems like minutes Jagger makes the conscious decision to start dancing and shrug off this warning.
Whether or not Jagger could have known what was going on and could have done anything is beside the point. The
film is its own drama, and it show us Hell's Angels standing on the stage glaring at Jagger with total disgust, Jagger and
Richards attempting, unsuccessfully to quell the rising violence, and the chaos getting totally out of hand. Jagger himself
seems to be deluded as to the kind of band he's in. In a hippie-ish moment he suggests to the roiling crowd "If we really
are all one then let's show we're all one." But his peacenik pleas are totally at odds with the dark visions of his lyrics.
During "Sympathy For The Devil" and "Under My Thumb" (these songs are the focal point of the film) he sings of sinister
things, seemingly conjuring the mood of the evening. The legend of the musician trading his soul to the devil for success
dates back well before Robert Johnson (whose "Love in Vain" is performed by the Stones in an earlier sequence) and this
story doesn't need to be taken literally to have resonance. Jagger's repeated use of blues mythology in his lyrics and
music open him up for the kind of atmosphere that eventually grows out of that. By posing himself as the dark prince of
rock and roll, Jagger helped create an uncontrollable atmosphere. One of the smartest elements of the film finds Jagger
and drummer Charlie Watts watching the film themselves. During these sequences the idea of how horrible it all is really
hits home (It's like the story David Fincher tells about how the grisliest fight in Fight Club had no real impact on
test audiences. It was only once he inserted reaction shots of horrified onlookers that people started fleeing the theater
and shielding their eyes). By showing Jagger's grim, grey response the filmmakers make sure we know that this is for
What ultimately happens at Altamont (including numerous beatings and murder) all passes in front of that face without
comment. Jagger's stoic, downward glare, cast at the Maysles' editing table, seems to absorb all guilt and tension. During
the "climax" of the film, when Jagger asks to see the fatal stabbing again, the way he furrows his brow and purses his lips
lets you know that, in some level, he knows that all of this is his fault. His only comment can be something along the
lines of "Well, that's it, isn't it?" and he might as well be eulogizing an entire era.
The restoration that has been done on this film is simply fantastic. Gimme Shelter was originally shot on 16mm
film and thirty years worth of duped prints have left it with a blurry, grainy legacy. Criterion's new print (not just a
digital facelift, but an actual restoration of the film elements) is astonishing. The grain is still there, as it should be, but
the picture is crisp and clear. The colors are vibrant and the experience is one of a kind. The picture is full-frame (as it
Again, the work done on the film is extraordinary. The film is available in several audio formats:
- DTS 5.1 - This
track sounds simply incredible. The music sounds absolutely perfect, with great separation on the instruments and real
- Dolby Digital 5.1 - This track sounds nearly as good. Not quite as punchy, but absolutely incredible nonetheless.
- Dolby Digital 2.0 - Compared to the other tracks this sounds weak, but it still is an improvement over crackly
While the extra features really do serve to provide additional context for the film, one of the main features here turns out
to be something of a disappointment. Audio commentary by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerkin (David Maysles had
since passed away) is really a bore, spending far too much time on technical details and glossing over the sinister heart of
darkness that haunts the film. They go out of their way to absolve Jagger and company of any responsibility as if their
words here can and may be used against them in a court of law. A more critical voice would have balanced the track.
Heck, even Jagger and Watts would probably have cast themselves in a more critical light.
Making up for this weak commentary is an excellent 34 page collection of essays in the accompanying booklet. Usually I
don't bother commenting on supplemental material not on the disc itself, but these essays make fascinating reading.
They cover the event and the film from all of the angles that the commentary track neglects. Journalists and members of
the Stones' personnel and the Hell's Angels all get their say. Definitely worth reading from cover to cover.
Also included are a large number of long clips from KSAN Radio's wrap-up of the Altamont fiasco featuring lots of calls
from folks who were there. Played over a still screen, these clips make a harrowing accompaniment to the film as you
hear the way the show really shook up those who were there.
Additionally, the disc includes clips of the Stones playing "Little Queenie", "Prodigal Son", and "Oh Carol" at the Madison
Square Garden show featured early in the film. These outtakes show the Stones at their rawest and, even though the
quality is not the same as the restored film, they are indispensible.
Also included is a still gallery, filmographies, a detailed restoration demonstration, and trailers for other Maysles
Brothers film Grey Gardens and Salesman, which, not coincidentally, Criterion has slated for release later
A complex, terrifying, exhilarating, and disturbing film, Gimme Shelter reveals the lie behind every modern
Rolling Stones tour, that they are now nothing but shadows of their former selves. Whereas they are nothing more than
a corporation today they were once a dangerous, confusing, and contradictory band that took part in a compelling
moment in history. As I stated earlier, Gimme Shelter bears little resemblance to other concert films and, in
showing us humankind at its worst, it takes its place as an important film that demands to be seen.