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 real.
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.
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 this year.