While I wasn't around to experience Woodstock or Altamont in 1969, I have seen the concert films for both and have some appreciation for the impact each had on the music and cultural landscapes in America. However, you can't discuss those concerts and Gimme Shelter, a film documenting the Rolling Stones' tour that culminated at Altamont, without bringing in the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, because that helps provide as complete a perspective for the generation that grew up on the music.
Monterey was (in part) facilitated by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, and his name helped bring in acts like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin. Many of the performers were making their American debuts, which showed in their performances. Otis floored the crowd; Jimi set his axe on fire. But the diversity and musicianship in the songs over three days was milk and honey to the crowd that grew up around San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district.
However, the show seemed relatively exclusive in nature, with less than 15,000 people in attendance, so promoter Michael Lang and others set out to recapture the same atmosphere but with a broader audience. Set on a farm in upstate New York, the Woodstock Festival hosted many of the same acts as Monterey along with some new ones, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone and Richie Havens. Due to the surge in popularity, the organizers decided to make the show free to all; the result was a half-million men, women and children descending on the sleepy hamlet. What was striking, aside from the festival's own outstanding performances, was the overall communal nature of the crowd, who helped each other at every possible opportunity. This crowd unity against a powerful backdrop of music made for one of the great moments in American history.
Missing from both of these festivals was the presence of the Rolling Stones. While guitarist Brian Jones introduced Hendrix at Monterey, he left the band in June 1969 and died shortly after, leaving the band unable to play at Woodstock even if they were able to. The Stones had put together a multi-act show before, with 1968's "Rock and Roll Circus," which included The Who, John Lennon and Marianne Faithfull, and wanted to develop a "Woodstock West" by holding a free day-long concert that was originally to be held in San Francisco but ultimately put down roots at the Altamont Speedway in California. In Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles (along with Charlotte Zwerin) chronicle the events leading up to the show and the show itself.
While the focus of Gimme Shelter is on this show and its aftermath, the Maysles brothers also capture some of what makes the Stones great at other tour stops. At Madison Square Garden, the band plays songs like "Jumping Jack Flash" with an informal intensity; between songs, front man Mick Jagger toys with the crowd's emotions, luring them into a concert that is refined in its ambience and hedonistic in its lyrics. While in America, they mix the songs that would later comprise the Sticky Fingers album, including an extended take of "Wild Horses" that guitarist/songwriter Richards immerses himself in, eyes closed.
Since plans to get the San Francisco show fall through, Altamont Speedway is used as a substitute. The band employs the California Hell's Angels as security for the concert following a positive experience with another chapter at a concert in London. The California "branch" appears to be more aggressive, hitting audience members with pool cues and even knocking out Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin. When the Stones finally take the stage at dusk, the violence amplifies; a nude woman who climbs onto the stage is punched and kicked. The night's hostility reaches its peak when 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, high on meth, apparently begins waving a gun in the crowd. A member of the Angel's sees it and stabbed Hunter, who later died from his injuries. The Stones, unaware of the fatality until after the show, continue playing. The film shows them watching footage of the stabbing (caught by one of Maysles' cameramen) days later.
It's hard to point to one definitive trigger at Altamont that set off so much violence. Some have said there was a general apathy within the crowd that the Woodstock crowd months earlier did not have. Many have pointed to the Hell's Angels as the primary problem, though Angel's chapter head Sonny Barger has discussed what his group's role was numerous times and has denied much of the blame. But the Angels' pay of $500 worth of beer combined with the crowd's indulgence in their own chemicals, made for a volatile reaction that seemed inevitable.
Ultimately, Altamont, while it provided some great music by a band that was arguably at its creative apex, remains remembered and eulogized more for what happened off the stage than on. One of the last shots in the film show Jagger looking into the camera as the film pauses, almost as if things have changed for the worse for the band and their fans. While it's an unfortunate truth that the show served to metaphorically close the door on the generation of peace and love, Gimme Shelter serves as a tragic yet compelling witness.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Criterion gives Gimme Shelter an AVC MPEG-4 encoded 1080p high-definition presentation, reproducing its 1.33:1 full-frame qualities. Things have been cleaned up a bit on this disc, with more realistic flesh tones and reds in things like Mick's scarf in the Madison Square Garden show, which looks vibrant and natural. This isn't going to be confused for a reference-quality transfer, but it is an excellent-looking film that's been done justice on Blu-ray. Gimme Shelter is as good as it's ever looked.
You get DTS-HD Master Audio on two different tracks, a 5.1 surround track and a two-channel option. Dialogue sounded fine and there were no distortion issues, and the live music is clear as a bell. What I liked in particular was the studio stuff, such as when the band is listening to a mix of "Wild Horses." You can hear the strings plucked in the rear channel with even a small hint of mandolin to boot. Criterion does great job on another catalog title.
Almost everything from the standard definition edition is here, with the exception of Barger's essay in the booklet and a couple small video extras (on the film's restoration and for the Maysles films Grey Gardens and Salesman). Zwerin, David Maysles and collaborator Stanley Goldstein join forces for a commentary where they share their thoughts on the concert. Maysles recalls how he worked with Goldstein and Zwerin and how he met the Stones, and when the idea of the film was first discussed. Some additional behind-the-scenes information on some shots is revealed too, along with production-focused stuff like setting up where the cameramen were to shoot. Some historical context for the concert is presented, accompanied by some additional information on the show that's not covered in the film. It's a worthwhile track.
Next up is a broadcast from KSAN radio that was recorded the day after the show. Condensed from its four-hour broadcast (now 1:29:23), it includes new introductions from the station's broadcast personality who hosted the show (Stefan Ponek), and features lots of call-in contributions from Barger, production manager Sam Cutler and several others. It's interesting to get their thoughts on the show's events so soon after, along with Barger's counterpoint to how the Angels did their job. It's almost as interesting a broadcast as the film itself, so it's a nice complement. Some outtake footage (18:28) is next, including film of the band mixing in studio and one of the excised songs, which is a cover of Chuck Berry's "O Carol"; this is funny considering Richards' role in Berry's film Hail Hail Rock and Roll. Three trailers follow and stills galleries from photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower complete the disc.
Gimme Shelter is an outstanding look at a symbolic end of a generation and its music. Set against the backdrop of a concert by the "World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band," it's a great look at the band and their thoughts on what occurred during and after such a renowned show. Technically, the disc is an audio and video upgrade over its standard-definition counterpart, and you're only missing one small supplement. Alone, to hear the Stones in lossless audio, it's worth the upgrade and a recommendation for initial purchase.