Judge Bill Gibron gathered no moss while reviewing this classic rock doc.
Oh, a storm is threat'ning / My very life today / If I don't get some shelter / Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away
Everybody always blames the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Speedway for the death of the '60s. They use Woodstock (which happened in August of the same year) as the hope springs eternal yin to the mad dash of devil may care craven callousness yang that came a scant four months later. One supposedly represented the best of the hippie generation. The other was its dirty, seedy, smelly side. Of course, no one remembers that Manson and his family really started the ball rolling in the same month as that preferred festival of peace and love, carving up the famous and the ancillary in an attempt to prompt a Fab-Four inspired race war. Heck, if you really want to extrapolate, Wal-Mart officially incorporated in 1969, and if that's not enough to kill any counterculture dream, nothing is.
No, Mick and Keith didn't destroy the spirit of America's defining decade. All they really did was show the Establishment what said cross conservatives had already feared—that the promise of youth was destined to lead to the misdeed of the masses. Luckily, documentarians Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were on hand to capture the moment for all time. The resulting film, Gimme Shelter, remains one of the genre's greatest achievements—and most telling observations.
Facts of the Case
While ultimately about Altamont, Gimme Shelter was initially conceived as a "fly on the wall" look at the Rolling Stones 1969 American tour. It had been two years since the group had played live, and three since visiting the US. After the final gig in Florida, the Stones organized what would later be dubbed 'Woodstock West'—a free concert featuring themselves, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The first three quarters of the movie shows the Stones playing at Madison Square Garden, joking through a press conference, and watching footage from the film itself with the Maysleses. Perhaps the biggest chunk of material is reserved for infamous lawyer Melvin Belli and his attempts to negotiate a location for the show (the original setting, Golden Gate Park, was unexpectedly deemed 'unavailable').
Once Altamont is chosen, we see the start of what will be one long, horrific day. The crowds seem unruly. The 'hired' security—the Hell's Angels motorcycle group—come equipped with pool cues and really bad attitudes. There is a sense of dread in the air. Then 19 year old Meredith Hunter, high on methamphetamine, brandishes a gun at the stage. Without warning, a member of the Angels grabs him and…well, the rest is documentary and cruel rock concert history.
It's probably not the worst live venue disaster ever. The Who still more or less hold that record. While waiting for general admission seating at a venue in Cincinnati (during a brief US tour in 1979), 11 people were trampled to death when security limited access to the arena. Oddly enough, it was ten years to the month since the Altamont show, and yet to this day, the fact that Meredith Hunter, a young black man, was killed by a white Hell's Angel member continues to resonate with cultural significance. Perhaps it's because the act was caught on film, the brutal reality of the event being more significant than newsreel images of a post-Who clean-up. Maybe, it's the notion of the band that was playing at the time. If the Beatles were the squeaky clean (if secretly perverse) good guys of the 1960s, the Stone always appeared to be Satan's own back-up boy's choir. They were the grungier, naughtier, sluttier vision of the British Invasion. The Fab Four may have threatened your daughter's virginity, but the Glimmer Twins were deflowering the population while giving the parents a good once over as well.
So the fact that Gimme Shelter humanizes the Rolling Stones is its first major accomplishment—especially given the time frame of its release. Whenever rock gods can be brought down to Earth, if only for a little bit, everybody wins, and in this case, the Maysleses plus Zwerin were around to catch the band at its most vulnerable. The musical sequences are startling in their rawness and stripped down fervor, newest member Mick Taylor tweaking the already blues based groove of the Stones into something akin to country twang rockabilly. Similarly, Jagger is at his archetypal best, playing a cock strutting sullied Uncle Sam to an American demo desperate for something significant in their life. With his red, white, and blue top hat and accompanying cape, he is the epitome of every lyric he sings, from a devotee of "Brown Sugar" to the ultimate "Street Fighting Man." It's a shame that the rest of the band doesn't get as much screen time as the Mickster. Only Charlie Watts, seen posing for the album cover art of Get Your Ya-Ya's Out, shares any significant situations within and outside the film. The rest of the group is viewed in passing—in the studio while mixing tracks like "Little Queenie" and "Wild Horses," or arriving at hotel rooms.
In fact, the majority of Gimme Shelter is taken up with issues behind the scenes. Belli is a pip, playing the learned city lawyer routine like he's auditioning for a role in a hack Hollywood melodrama. Elsewhere, bands like The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Ike and Tina Turner Revue (who actually opened for the Stones during the initial tour) get moments to shine. But once the headliners steamroll into "Satisfaction" or rampage through a nasty version of "Under My Thumb," we sense that nothing good will come of this. Indeed, one of the most pervasive feelings in Gimme Shelter is one of doom—and not just because we have the hindsight to know what's going to happen. Instead, the entire enterprise, from Belli's bilious arrogance to the weird wheeling and dealing done just to get the concert held (it ends up being all about advertising and publicity, sadly) seem to signal the corruption and commercialization of everything the '60s stood for. Sure, the two main ingredients of the film's formidable appeal—the band and the killing—continue this theme, but there is more trouble here than initially meets the eye. That's why Gimme Shelter stands head and shoulders above other music films. It offers the sounds—and then brings the fury.
Fans of the film will be sad to learn that Criterion has not really changed the version of the film they are offering as part of this new Blu-ray release. The extras all seem repurposed from the original DVD package—including a commentary by remaining Maysles Albert, Zwerin, and "collaborator" Stanley Goldstein; additional performances from Madison Square Garden ("Oh Carol," "Prodigal Son"); backstage footage; additional studio clips; an Altamont stills gallery; a post-event radio wrap-up (audio only) from 7 December, 1969; trailers; and a huge booklet featuring essays from rock critics and former members of the Rolling Stone's entourage. Since we can only hope that, one day, the band breaks its silence on the subject and sits down to reflect on Altamont in a more contemporary light, the current Criterion release will have to do. If all you care about is context, this technological update is more of the same.
Oddly enough, it's the sound and vision that wins over older fans. The Blu-ray transfer is terrific, the 1.33:1 full screen image never looking cleaner or crisper. Sure, there are limits in the technology of the time, and given the Maysleses offhand, catch-as-catch-can way of filming, other issues (lighting, location) can come into play. Still, the ever-present grain and vibrant colors remain intact, as does a lot of detail that a non-1080p transfer might miss. On the sound side of things, the simpler DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo 2.0 mix is offered, but one should skip it for the newly reconfigured DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It's terrific, the separation in the instrumentation and the merging of audience and band noises really bringing the concert to life. Even in the quieter moments of conversation and reflection, the new aural elements truly excel.
So if Altamont, and the resulting 'performance as police evidence' film experience didn't kill the '60s, what did? Oddly enough, the answer comes from the very faces we see lining up to see the Rolling Stones. At some point prior to the last year of the decade, the counterculture believed it won. It stopped being rebels and instead, reveled in its supposed victories. College campuses were being shut down. The media was suddenly cottoning to their nonconformity. They controlled music, with movies and TV slowly coming into line. Heck, they were more influential than the Establishment with substantially less than half of their conservative ruling power. So it wasn't a Hell's Angel stabbing a drugged out concert goer, or a weird little cult leader and his brainwashed family that destroyed the dream. It was complacency. It was forgetting that victory is only half the battle. It was failing to acknowledge that there was more work to be done. Within the Rolling Stones' volatile, hedonistic bump and grind as the soundtrack, the era was destined to die. All Gimme Shelter did was capture it at its apex, and its simultaneous nadir. That's why it remains so significant…so special…so sad…so great.
Not Guilty—a great film and a great Blu-ray update.
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