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Criterion brings the Rolling Stones concert documentary Gimme Shelter to Blu-ray, a move that maximizes the impact of the 16mm show. Music fans will be equally attracted to its lossless HD audio track, remixed in stereo surround.
The Maysles brothers had a knack for being at the right place at the right time. This searing documentary began as a performance piece on the Rolling Stones, to capitalize on a rock concert billed as Woodstock West. It 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. 1969 may have borne the myth of Woodstock, but mostly it was nothing but bad news: the Manson murders, the revelations about the previous year's Mei Lei Massacre. Altamont was the nail in the coffin -- the illusion of the Peace & Love 60s was officially dead.
The docu cameras catch The Rolling Stones 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 to organize a colossal rock show to be held 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 begins 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.
Everyone involved seems aware that the concert isn't coming together right. The unease 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 with them. Thing go from ugly to worse. They sit on the stage, crowding around the performers with their girlfriends. Their constant provocation ignites a number of fights, until the murder occurs and the concert is stopped. 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 at Altamont. There are 22 credited cameramen and 12 sound recordists, (George Lucas and Walter Murch among them) and the coverage is phenomenal -- creating a palpable you-are-there feeling not shared 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; the Maysles 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 an early Steenbeck flatbed editing table and watches the footage with a combination of disgust and discomfort. The Steenbeck is stopped and rolled backwards to reveal clear views of a gun and a stabbing knife. We can see Jagger's unhappy reaction as it forms on his face. In their role as documentarians, the Maysles have filmed reality and then organized their footage around the reactions of its leading player. It's a prime moment in media awareness.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Gimme Shelter replaces a DVD from 2002. The image is brighter and certainly as sharp as it's going to get; underexposed areas of the frame sometimes shimmer with grain. A choice of high end audio tracks include a DTS-HD Master Audio Surround option and a two-channel stereo track.
The fine extras from the DVD have been retained. A spirited 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 in which a local deejay tried to get to the bottom of the controversy, is particularly dramatic. An extensive still gallery is also present. The disc comes with a 40+page booklet containing articles and essays by people close to the event and critics. The one missing item of note is a text piece by 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 are trailers and a set of unseen Rolling Stones Madison Square Garden performances, including the songs Oh Carol and Prodigal Son.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gimme Shelter Blu-ray rates:
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