Film Reviews


By • Aug 11th, 2000 •

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The disastrous Altamont free concert has always been considered Woodstock’s evil twin. The day Woodstock’s utopian communal vision disintegrated in violence, chaos and death. It sounded like a great idea: as the climax of their 1969 American tour, The Rolling Stones would perform at a free concert in San Francisco, unofficial headquarters of the counterculture. Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead quickly agreed to play. When the glorious plans went wrong, legendary documentarians David and Albert Maysles, and their numerous camerapeople (including a young George Lucas), were present to capture the moment. Their film, Gimme Shelter, is more than just a great rock movie, although it does feature electrifying footage of The Rolling Stones at their peak; it is a disturbing record of a turning point in American culture.

In celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary, Home Vision Cinema, The Criterion Collection, Janus Films, and Kit Parker Films have joined forces to reissue this amazing documentary in brand-new restored 35mm prints with a stunning Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that has been painstakingly mixed from the original audio tracks.

After a deceptively regular concert film opening, the Maysles and co-director Charlotte Zwerin begin to move freely through time and space, intercutting The Stones’ American tour with the torturous preparations for Altamont, and eye-opening postmortem scenes of the band watching the Altamont footage in the Gimme Shelter editing room. Mick Jagger envisioned Altamont as “thousands of people getting along and enjoying the music.” Things might have turned out that way if the event had been better planned. The concert nearly didn’t happen. After losing their original venue, Golden Gate Park, the concert organizers scrambled to find a replacement, finally settling on the Altamont Motor Speedway. The result was a massive event involving hundreds of thousands of people that was essentially improvised with organizers depending on good karma to make everything work. When their parking plans go awry, one of the organizers explains that they are “going to let everyone do what they want as an experiment.” The cherry on the sundae was the decision to hire the Hell’s Angels as security. It is never explained who thought it was a good idea to have a security force that was as drunk and stoned as the crowd they were trying to control. As the day progressed, fights broke out constantly. When Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin waded into the crowd to protect a concertgoer being assaulted by one of the Hell’s Angels, he was also beaten. Mick Jagger gets punched almost as soon as he gets out of his helicopter. Audiences who only know today’s hypercontrolled stage shows (Like The Rolling Stones’ recent tours) will be stunned at how close concertgoers got to their idols.

When darkness arrived, The Stones took the stage, and events reached critical mass. Despite Jagger’s futile exhortations, every song was greeted by an explosion of chaotic violence. Jagger launched into ‘Under My Thumb’ but the night had clearly slipped out of his control. Someone pulled a gun on a Hell’s Angel and got stabbed to death. Although the film documents the very avoidable steps that led to catastrophe, the events at Altamont were perceived as playing a crucial role in destroying the countercultural dream of unlimited peace and harmony.

Ironically, The Stones have expended countless dollars and lawyers to suppress Robert Frank’s ‘Cocksucker Blues’ which simply reveals the not-so shocking news that rock bands drink, do drugs, and have sex with groupies, but have freely promoted Gimme Shelter which is arguably more revealing of the band’s shortcomings. The Stones had always cultivated a dangerous bad boy image which gradually began to include numerous references to Satanism. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was the first song on their Altamont play list. However, when The Stones actually had to face real violence conjured up by the power of their music, they recoiled in horror. Jagger is especially helpless. The self-proclaimed Streetfighting Man was clearly more comfortable sipping a martini by the hotel pool. On the plus side, and it is considerable, the filmmakers captured The Rolling Stones at their peak performing ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, and other of their greatest hits. No Stones fan will want to miss seeing this on the big screen.

Although The Rolling Stones are Gimme Shelter’s main subject, the film’s most haunting images are those of the audience, a vast gathering of people committed to the idea of building a better world through love, music, and drugs. It is a powerful evocation of that moment described by Hunter S. Thompson in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’: “that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil… Our energy would simply prevail… we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The film ends not with The Rolling Stones, but rather with the departing crowds walking through the hills surrounding Altamont, heading into an unimaginably complicated future.

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