Providing a great moment of pop-culture symmetry, the two 1969 rock concerts that epitomized the apex and nadir of the ’60s, respectively speaking, both inspired essential documentaries that were released in 1970. Michael Wadleigh’s epic Woodstock joyfully depicts “three days of peace and music,” and the Maysles Brothers’ incisive Gimme Shelter tracks events leading to a tragedy during the Rolling Stones’ notorious outdoor show at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway. If Woodstock represents the dream of the ’60s, Gimme Shelter represents the nightmare. On every level, the Maysles’ film comprises sober introspection about costly mistakes.
For instance, one of the picture’s slickest touches is a recurring device of Stones front man Mick Jagger watching footage from the in-progress movie while seated near an editing table. This trope leads, inexorably, to the chilling moment when Jagger reviews images of a Hell’s Angel scuffling with a concertgoer who subsequently died from stab wounds. Although the actual stabbing isn’t visible on camera, the implications of the images are unmistakable—the Stones and their representatives hired bikers with a reputation for violence to handle security at the free show, which drew an audience estimated at 300,000 people, so bloodshed was inevitable. Thus, the climactic moment of Gimme Shelter provides a perfect metaphor representing why the idealism of the ’60s flower children was never meant to last. Harmony, alas, is not humanity’s strong suit.
Directed by Albert and David Maysles (with Charlotte Zerwin), Gimme Shelter is structured like a forensic report. Opening with Jagger in the editing room, the film reaches backwards for episodes from the Stones tour that preceded the Altamont show, as well as conversations between flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli (who repped he band) and the proprietors of potential venues. The Stones are shown performing numbers at shows prior to Altamont, particularly in New York City, although the early musical highlight is an outrageously suggestive performance by opening act Tina Turner. (“It’s nice to have a chick occasionally,” Jagger obnoxiously remarks.)
Gimme Shelter truly comes alive, however, once the party reaches San Fransisco. Footage of roadies prepping a makeshift stage, and of fans smoking and tripping their way to bliss before the show starts, illustrate the groovy scene the Stones originally envisioned. After the Hell’s Angels show up—expecting to be paid with all the beer they can drink—things deteriorate rapidly. Warm-up sets by the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Jefferson Airplane are interrupted when overzealous Angels start fights with fans and musicians, even clocking Airplane singer Marty Balin while he performs. “Both sides keep temporarily fucking up,” the Airplane’s Grace Slick says from the stage. “Let’s not keep fucking up.” And yet the violence continues, even as the Stones try to play, ironically enough, “Sympathy for the Devil.” The last 45 minutes of Gimme Shelter, comprising the lead-up to the stabling and the violent act itself, are mesmerizing.
And then it’s all over, with a last freeze frame of Jagger’s inscrutable expression once he stands up from the editing table, having seen enough.
Gimme Shelter: RIGHT ON