Following them on a 1969 US tour, Gimme Shelter catches the Rolling Stones at their absolute apex. Interspersed with the live performance footage, we see the negotiations between lawyers and promoters who must find a last-minute alternate venue for a free concert scheduled in San Francisco. They decide on Altamonte Speedway. All events in the film lead to this event.
Intended to be the West Coast answer to Woodstock, the word ‘Altamonte’ has come to mean to live entertainment what ‘Waterloo’ means to French Cavalry. The speedway owner offered his venue hoping to generate free publicity, and I am sure he got more than he could have imagined. During the concert, the film crew actually captured the stabbing to death of a concert attendee by a Hell’s Angels member not 30 feet from the Rolling Stones’ performance stage.
If a cautionary tale can also be exhilarating, this is it. If Woodstock makes you nostalgic for a bygone era, Gimme Shelter will remind you why it all had to end. The Altamonte concert was a fiasco of good intentions, cynical promotion and dangerous naivety. In the spirit of keeping the event ‘free’, the promoters allowed members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to provide ‘security’. They made the equally dubious choice of providing the Angels with ‘all the beer they want’ in lieu of money. It kind of defeats the purpose when ‘security’ knocks out the lead singer in mid-performance. This happens to Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane. When Grace Slick criticises the action, a biker hops on Marty’s mike and tries to argue with her.
Gimme Shelter does feature some big acts, including Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Tina Turner and Ike Turner doing a rendition of the classic Otis Redding song ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’. But this is not much of a traditional ‘concert film’; rather the poorly mixed soundtrack captures the experience and imperfection of live performance that may frustrate record executives, but keeps bootleg recordings in demand. The film understands its obligation to the ‘experience’ of the concert, and not necessarily the music.
The film presents an interesting relationship to its subject matter by opening with Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger viewing rushes of the film in an editing suite and showing their responses throughout. The film starts with them viewing the infamous Altamonte death scene. The foregone conclusion creates a lingering doom that inspires a kind of alertness for the audience. Any enjoyment of the concert footage is tainted by the impending death. One after another, the decisions leading up to the concert gain an eerie foreboding. Viewing the film with hindsight, anticipating the festival’s tragic conclusion, one wonders how any other outcome could have been expected.
Rarely does a performer become an established icon while they are still at the top of their game. This film catches that intersection in Mick Jagger’s career perfectly. But it is as important to show how people are affected by a performance as much as to show the performers themselves. Nearly all of the Altamonte footage is shot from behind the band to feature the audience, which, as it turns out, is the stroke of genius that makes this movie so special. At earlier venues we see Mick literally preening as the centre of attention. At Altamonte he cannot contain his audience. The audience is the true ‘star’ of the film. Events supersede Mick – he tries to respond, but he is no leader.
Critics such as Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby derided the film as exploitative. Some charged that the filmmakers, if not complicit in the lethal chaos, were at least exploiting it. Or you can say ‘don’t blame the messenger’ and draw your own conclusions.
The incident portrayed reveals the kind of fascinating moral ambiguity that only happens in real life. And it is a well-made documentary that does not interrupt the ambiguity by seeking to resolve it. The film captures that the stabbing victim clearly had drawn a gun. Mick’s response is hard to discern. On the one hand there is shock and recrimination, and on the other the very real possibility the victim could have been him.
Gimme Shelter is many things; a great rock ’n’ roll film, a well-constructed documentary and a challenging mix of voyeurism and dark fascination. Above all, it is a glimpse into the end of an era. The most telling scene may not be the infamous stabbing, but the final sequence showing the audience straggling home next morning. Like tired refugees from the waning decade, they walk tired and bleary eyed into a cold, unwelcome dawn.
Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles
Runtime(s): 91 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.