When the Rolling Stones planned their answer to Woodstock, an all-day free concert at the Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco, they hired legendary documentary makers David and Albert Maysles to film it. But when the Hells Angels brought in as security killed a man just feet from the stage while the Stones played, what would have been a great concert film became something more.
The film opens in the weeks before Altamont, with live footage of the band on tour intercut with shots of the logistical headaches of planning a free concert for 300,000. What's often forgotten is how good the performances were, with Jagger dressed like an apocalyptic superhero, complete with cape, strutting around the stage with the audiences hanging on his every note and shimmy. But because we know what's to come, there's tension in every scene, no matter how joyous it might be on its own, like a raucous version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at Madison Square Garden.
From the beginning, we also see scenes of the Stones screening a rough cut of the film on an editing table, so we see their reactions as we're experiencing our own. Even though they aren't particularly forthcoming, forcing them to confront the chaos they created -- purposely early on the tour, goading the audience like the rock gods they were, then ultimately unable to control what they unleashed -- gives the movie much of its moral tension. (Co-director Charlotte Zwerin, who came in after the concert to edit the raw footage, came up with the idea.)
When the band finally makes it to Altamont, from the first shot, a jittery look out a helicopter window at miles of cars abandoned by the side of the road, you can sense the menace. The Hells Angels and the audience get increasingly wasted, and the Angels' crowd control turns rough quickly. During the Jefferson Airplane set, an Angel cracks singer Marty Balin in the face, and by the time the Stones come on, the crowd and the people who were supposed to keep order are openly fighting.
Watching the final, inevitable act unfold is devastating, and was hugely controversial at the time. (Click here for Pauline Kael's histrionic 1970 New Yorker review, which more or less blamed the directors for Meredith Hunter's death and made comparisons to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda, along with the Maysles' rebuttal.)
Typically for Criterion, the extras are great, including audio commentary from Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, and collaborator Stanley Goldstein; more than an hour of KSAN's radio broadcast the day after Altamont, with calls from concert goers, promoters, and Hells Angels, and 20 minutes of a Stones press conference; 18 minutes of outtakes; two galleries of stills; three trailers; and a booklet of essays.
It may be lazy to pinpoint Altamont as the day the '60s died, but something about it really was more significant than other concert tragedies. Had something changed so drastically since Woodstock six months earlier, or was mixing massive, uncontrolled crowds with heavy drugs and incendiary music disaster waiting to happen? Part of the legacy may be due to how Gimme Shelter so skillfully shapes the whole Stones tour as an inevitable buildup to catastrophe. (Two people died at Woodstock too, but that never showed up in Michael Wadleigh's documentary.)
Whatever the true significance of Altamont, Gimme Shelter is a mesmerizing film that keeps you on the edge of your seat -- even though you know all along how this particular bad trip ends.
Gimme Shelter: Criterion Collection [Blu-ray] is available now as part of The Criterion Collection