50 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ Chronicles an Era’s End
Gimme Shelter saw the light of day on Dec. 6, 1970, a full year after the tragic Rolling Stones concert it documented.
Directed by Albert and David Maysles, the movie began life as a simple fly-on-the-wall documentary of a couple of weeks in the lives of the Rolling Stones, beginning with a show at Madison Square Garden and ending with a free concert at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. The brothers had made movies focusing on artists before, including a film about the Beatles' first tour of the U.S. All should have gone well.
The Rolling Stones had a history with experimental film, particularly the kind of intimate documentaries that Albert and David Maysles made. Movies like Gimme Shelter, Jean-Luc Godard's Marxist tract Sympathy for the Devil, or Robert Frank's bleak and rare Cocksucker Blues bolster the image of the band as dangerous, just as they were at the peak of their powers in the late '60s and early '70s.
Gimme Shelter exists beyond the Stones, showing nothing less than the tragic conclusion of the era of flower power that the band helped to make happen. Conventional wisdom states the hippie dream of peace and love saw its apex with Woodstock and its tragic collapse in Altamont, on the other side of the country four months later. As Keith Richards said in his autobiography Life, "[Y]ou can see it all in Gimme Shelter. A combination of hippie commune and what can happen when it goes wrong."
The movie is appropriately named after the band's most apocalyptic song. Much of it takes a deep look at the events surrounding the Altamont concert, as well as examining its rampant disorganization, shameless promotio, and protection courtesy of biker group Hells Angels.
Among some 300,000 audience members, there were four deaths, including the stabbing of a young black man named Meredith Hunter.
Watch the Trailer for 'Gimme Shelter'
Rolling Stone, in its initial coverage of the concert, called it "the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity." This massive cover story, written by a dozen collaborators, played a big role in the dismissal of Gimme Shelter upon its release. The film crew is presented as exploitative Hollywood types resting behind the protection of Hells Angels. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael went further, labeling it a "sham" designed to clear the names of the filmmakers and the Stones while scoring "jackpot" with the deaths.
As a duo of filmmakers interested in challenging convention and finding new, intimate ways of crafting documentaries, the Maysles' work is quite a bit different from the portrait painted in the criticisms. Like other pioneers of direct cinema, their use of new battery-powered handheld cameras helped them tremendously. They could easily create gentle explorations of the artistic and idiosyncratic kinds of people they seemed to love so much.
The fact that Gimme Shelter is abrasive and intense does not mark it as a radical shift from what the brothers had been attempting all through their '60s work. They bring their sense of irony and personality to every moment, but the subject matter was too big, too monstrous to live within their control.
Because of that, the movie plays out in the past tense. It opens with the Stones in the Maysles' editing room, reviewing footage and listening to radio broadcasts documenting the wreckage of Altamont. One caller is a member of Hells Angels, saying he was asked to sit on the stage so nobody could get over him.
Rather than voice-overs or interviews, much of Gimme Shelter is the band watching the footage on monitors months later, their faces subtly changing with certain moments.
While the nature of the movie is sad and menacing, there is joy in the Madison Square Garden performances filmed before Altamont. Periodically cutting back to this show, the movie captures iconic Stones moments, like Mick Jagger looking simultaneously glamorous and ridiculous in a cape and top hat, and a blistering Mick Taylor solo in their performance of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." These practically feel like breadcrumbs for anybody who wanted a more traditional concert film.
As excellent as these performances are, the movie also captures the band in a jaded state of mind. An early press conference has Jagger promoting the concert and noting that the band is "financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, and philosophically trying." Even the comfort of recording choice cuts from Sticky Fingers in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios feels fraught.
Gimme Shelter is more concerned with logistics than any other music documentary, precisely because the Altamont concert was such a logistical nightmare. The Rolling Stones were committed to playing a free concert with the Grateful Dead in San Francisco, and location after location dropped out. Ultimately, Altamont Speedway was picked, two days before the concert. There weren't enough portable bathrooms and the stage wasn't big enough. The movie captures a lot of the dealmaking that set this tragedy in motion, and begins its concert sequence with the image of dozens of workers hanging off what looks like rickety scaffolding.
There are many great shots of the some 300,000 attendees, like a man snatching a sound recordist's glasses and a hippie carrying an American flag that replaces the stars with a peace sign. When an organizer for the show mentions that the arrivals aren't following parking directions, he admits that they're "just gonna let it happen... for experimental purposes."
While the organizers are planning to lay claim to "the greatest party of 1969," hopes for a West Coast Woodstock are quickly squashed. There's little ecstasy to the coverage, with its wild, roving crowds and the mounting sense of tension between the bikers and the audience.
Clever editing in the movie lets no musical sequence go without close-ups of frustrated, anxious audience members. Even the naked dancers among the crowd are usually isolated, surrounded by dead-eyed stoners. The bands could have been putting on the greatest performances of their careers and the vibes would still be bad.
Even without the participation of the Hells Angels, the sheer congestion of the crowd would have been tough. But the biker group took a bad situation and made it worse with their copious drinking and pool cues. The movie presents the violence objectively, showing ample shots of the group beating people. As DJ Stefan Ponek, whose broadcast opened the film, said in the movie's 2000 DVD release, "it became rather apparent that the Stones didn't know what kind of people they were dealing with."
The movie gears towards its conclusion after more skirmishes, notably with Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin stepping in to defend a man in the crowd from violence and getting targeted by an Angel. Grace Slick's pleas for peace feel hopeless, but they clear things up just enough for the Stones' later arrival.
Watch the Confrontation Between the Jefferson Airplane and Hells Angels
The bikers parade through the crowd to reach the stage and provide protection for the Stones as they enter, leading to a baffling mix of boos and applause. Hundreds of audience members appear to hazily stagger on the stage, as the Angels do little but threaten. When Jagger tells the crowd to just "be cool" midway through "Sympathy for the Devil," the movie cuts back to the editing room to show Jagger realizing the hollowness of his words.
The gang-stabbing of Meredith Hunter by a group of Angels during the band's performance of "Under My Thumb" cuts again to Jagger, asking to review the footage. "He pulled out a gun," says one observer. From there, a helicopter picks him up, and his distraught girlfriend cries while a friend says "don't worry about it." Cut to Jagger in the heat of "Street Fighting Man" while other Angels throw flowers at the audience.
Meredith Hunter's killing was the biggest news in the concert's wake. The hit-and-run that killed two people and the LSD-induced drowning also made waves, but Hunter's death registered in a different way, because the Stones' security were directly involved. The "bad vibes" of which Grace Slick spoke came to fruition, and it was impossible to ignore that the victim was a black man, whose difficulty with the drunken bikers and display of a handgun marked him. It marked him in death as well - the footage the Maysles brothers gathered was later used to exonerate murderer Alan Passaro.
At the 2004 International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, co-director Albert Maysles said "if a governmental agency had been policing, then it would have been OK. There wouldn't have been the killing." Much of the movie seems to exist in this wishful state of thinking, that if one or two small details had changed there would have been no tragedy, that the hiring of Hells Angels was simply the first domino to fall.
The movie opts for an objective and clear-eyed perspective, but it has no interest in excusing the Angels who terrorized the crowd and killed a man, or even the Stones who paid no mind while the show was going. Just before its epilogue, the movie ends on a freeze frame of Jagger leaving the editing room, his face inscrutable.
Watching Gimme Shelter now, it's impossible to miss the impact the event had on Mick Jagger. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, he stated that he didn't care much for the end-of-an-era declarations made in the wake of the concert. Speaking of Meredith Hunter, he said, "It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed and how sad it was for his family and how dreadfully the Hells Angels behaved."
All these things can be true, and Gimme Shelter documents all of it. The terror and sadness of Hunter's death casts an overwhelming shadow on an already-grim moment, as do the countless shots of Hells Angels brutalizing the crowd. Contrasted against Mike Wadleigh's Woodstock film from earlier in the year, Gimme Shelter's portrait of the late '60s is haunted and wounded.
Watch the Rolling Stones Perform "Sympathy for the Devil"
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