Gimme Shelter
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In 1969, the world belonged to rock 'n' roll, or at least it seemed that way. In the wake of Woodstock, where people came together in a relatively blissful union, rock 'n' roll was posited as the answer to the world's problems. It promised love and peace and hope and a way (no matter how ill-defined) of re-shaping the future. We could live together.

In that light, during their 1969 tour of America, The Rolling Stones envisioned their own Woodstock, their own gift to the world: a free concert to be staged outside of the American epicenter of the rock 'n' roll community, San Francisco. However, for all their good intentions, The Stones failed to understand how fragile the spell of Woodstock could become when invoked hastily. As a result, their gift became an ugly fiasco.

Filmmakers David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin captured this volatile mixture of the na´ve and the violent in their landmark documentary Gimme Shelter. They had joined The Stones in New York and had caught Mick Jagger and company at an artistic high point. Delivering boisterous, energetic versions of "Satisfaction" and "Street Fighting Man," The Stones appeared capable of winning over any audience. But it's exactly this confidence -- some might say overconfidence -- that led to their troubles. With little planning, The Stones' authorized lawyers to negotiate for a location where a free concert could be staged. The filmmakers give us access to some of these sessions, where lawyers wrangle with property owners and law enforcement officials. It's stunning how rushed the preparations became. The day before the show, the location was still in question. But finally a racetrack owner offered his property -- Altamont Speedway -- thinking about the publicity it would receive. And as radio stations announced the location, a stage was hastily constructed. Fans from across the country had already begun the trek to San Francisco. Now they had a definite destination. Fans descended on this new would-be Woodstock with the greatest of expectations.

DVD cover artwork for Gimme Shelter.
[click photo for larger version]

In retrospect, it's not surprising that the concert didn't go smoothly. But as captured by the cameras of the Maysleses and Zwerin, the concert was absolutely terrifying. This is the scariest concert movie ever made. We watch as the Hell's Angels ride their motorcycles through the crowd and park in front of the stage. They had been offered free beer if they'd simply show up and keep over-zealous fans off the stage. Seeing the Angels' Harleys surrounded by a packed audience -- and knowing how possessive the Angels are about their bikes -- is scary enough, but then we see as skirmishes break out between the Angels and the audience. We see bikers push back the audience as an Angel picks up his damaged bike. We see Mick Jagger attempt to sing "Sympathy for the Devil" but stopping as the audience retreats from the stage -- driven by pool-cue swinging bikers. We see the audience surge onto the stage (it's no more than four-feet tall!), and we see bikers angrily reject them with fists and kicks. We see as Jagger implores the audience and the bikers to settle down. We see the blur of what might be a gun in the hand of an audience member, and we see the glint of a knife guided by a biker's hand. All-too-obviously the knife hits its mark.

Gimme Shelter now comes to DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection in a superb DVD package loaded with extras. The DVD was mastered from a new high-definition transfer of the uncensored 30th Anniversary version, restored from the camera original. This is the same version of the movie now touring the country in theatrical distribution. Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (and collaborator Stanley Goldstein) provide audio commentary on an alternate track. The disc includes additional footage of The Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1969 (performing "Little Queenie," "Oh Carol," and "Prodigal Son"), as well as photo galleries featuring the work of renowned photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower. In addition, you'll find excerpts from KSAN Radio's post-concert wrap-up, including a call-in by Hell's Angels chapter head Sonny Barger. The DVD package also includes a 44-page booklet with several essays.

This is an excellent DVD package. Gimme Shelter has been called "the greatest rock film ever made," but that's a misleading statement. Gimme Shelter is much less about rock 'n' roll than it is about a concert gone horribly wrong. You'll see several major rock 'n' roll acts (such as The Flying Burrito Brothers and Tina Turner) perform at Altamont, but the growing danger as fans spill onto the stage and fights break out quickly becomes the focus. By the time that Jefferson Airplane reaches the stage, the struggles between the audience and the Hell's Angels have become violent. Grace Slick's eyes, wide in horror as she gazes over the audience, speak volumes about the unmanageable situation. With 300,000 audience members packed around a tiny stage and the Hell's Angels angrily standing their ground, Gimme Shelter contains little of the exhilaration of rock 'n' roll. Instead, it contains a growing sense of doom and disappointment. Gimme Shelter is a great movie, but it's also sad and shocking, for as it's story unfolds, the hope of rock 'n' roll dissipates, until by the story's end, it's remarkable that anyone got out of Altamont alive.

 


Gimme Shelter is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.