Film Review: Gimme Shelter (dir by Albert and David Mayles and Charlotte Zwerin)

After you watch Woodstock, you owe it to yourself to watch another documentary from 1970.  This one is called Gimme Shelter and it deals with the infamous Altamont Free Concert.  Taking place a few months after Woodstock, Altamont was originally envisioned as being Woodstock West but, as Gimme Shelter illustrates in disturbing detail, it ultimately became something far different.

Here are a few images from both Gimme Shelter and the Altamont Free Concert:

This is Mick Jagger, the lead singer of The Rolling Stones.  The Rolling Stones were the final act to perform at the Altamont Free Concert and their performance was meant to be the conclusion of their 1969 American tour.  Gimme Shelter was originally meant to be a documentary about the final days of the tour and clips of a confident and charismatic Jagger performing in Madison Square Garden are sprinkled throughout the first 40 minutes of the film.  They provide a striking contrast to the chaos of the second half of the film, in which Jagger finds himself ineffectually trying to maintain order as fights break out in front of the stage.

This is Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’s drummer.  Though Gimme Shelter is usually referred to as being a documentary about the Rolling Stones, the film pretty much centers around Mick and Charlie.  Gimme Shelter‘s framing device involves Mick and Charlie watching a rough cut of the documentary itself.  While Mick always seems to maintain an air of deliberate detachment, Charlie seems to be visibly disturbed by what happened during their performance at Altamont.

(In another memorable scene, the group is shown listening to their latest recording.  While this rest of the group plays up to the filmmakers, Charlie quietly takes in the music and appears to be surprised when he notices that he’s being filmed.)

This is the Melvin Belli.  An attorney, Belli appears throughout the first half of Gimme Shelter, making the arrangements for the Altamont Free Concert and obviously having a great time showing off for the camera.  At one point, Belli makes a comment about opening for the Stones.  While Belli’s joking, it’s obvious from the tone of his voice that he’d love nothing more than to do so.  In fact, Belli is so busy being entertaining that he really doesn’t seem to notice that, even during the planning stages, the Altamont Free Concert doesn’t sound like a good idea.

This is Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Hell’s Angels.  He’s standing on the Altamont stage, watching Mick Jagger perform.  Why is Barger on stage?  He’s there because, for some reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to hire the Hell’s Angels to handle security at the concert.  (Barger is heard, in the film, saying that he was told that he could sit on the stage and drink beer and all he had to do was keep anyone else from approaching the musicians.)

What is Barger thinking as he watches Jagger perform?  This is a question that I think anyone who has ever watched Gimme Shelter has asked themselves.  Is he annoyed with or menacing Jagger or is he just doing his job and making sure that no one rushes the singer?  Perhaps it’s all of the above.

The man in green is Meredith Hunter.  This shot is the first time that Hunter appears in the film.  The second time is when he’s getting stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels security force.  Watching the documentary, Jagger asks to rewatch the scene of Hunter’s murder.  The filmmakers slow down the scene and show him both the knife being held by the Hell’s Angel and the gun being held by Hunter.

Even before Hunter’s death, Gimme Shelter has already shown us enough to convince us that the counter culture dream of Woodstock was the exception as opposed to the rule.  The final hour of Gimme Shelter takes place at the Altamont Free Concert and almost every scene feels like an angry rebuke to the positivity of Woodstock.  The crowds were angrier.  The scenery was far less aesthetically pleasing.  (Woodstock took place on a farm.  Altamont took place on a cement race track.)  Whereas Woodstock famously featured warnings about the “brown acid,” Gimme Shelter features one of the concert promoters reacting to concerns about the bad acid circulating in the crowd by saying, “Tough shit.”  Even the naked people at Altamont were far less attractive than the naked people at Woodstock.  Jefferson Airplane played at both festivals.  At Woodstock, they apparently had sound issues but otherwise, there were no problems.  At Altamont, as the cameras rolled, lead singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by a Hell’s Angel with a pool cue.

(“I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank you for that,” one of the members of the band announced.)

A few more images from Altamont:

Before the concert starts, this man cheerfully yelled “LSD!  Mescaline!” at everyone walking by.  I’m not sure if that was his dog or not.  But speaking of dogs…

…this dog casually wandered across the stage during the Rolling Stones’s performance.  It’s never clear where he came from or where he went after he left the stage.

Even with the Hell’s Angels beating up everyone in sight, a few people still enjoyed the concert.  This is who I relate to in the film because she was determined to enjoy herself no matter how weird things got.

But then there’s this guy, who was standing only a few feet away from Jagger when he started to freak out:

If Woodstock is ultimately all about peace and life, Gimme Shelter is a film that is suffused with conflict and death.  If you’re going to watch one, you owe it to yourself to watch the other.  In the end, the two documentaries together provide us with a view of a counterculture that had so much potential but which couldn’t escape the darkness that hid behind the light.

(Interestingly enough, future director George Lucas was one of the cameramen at Altamont that day.  Just as how Altamont was often cited as the end of the 60s, the blockbuster success of Lucas’s Star Wars would often be cited as the beginning of the 80s.)

I’ll end this review with a quote from Grace Slick, one that is still relevant today.  As she said as she watched Altamont descend into chaos: “You don’t hassle with anybody in particular. You gotta keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love. People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line. But the Angels also – you know, you don’t bust people in the head – for nothing. So both sides are fucking up temporarily; let’s not keep FUCKING UP!”

6 responses to “Film Review: Gimme Shelter (dir by Albert and David Mayles and Charlotte Zwerin)

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