As much as I try to enjoy my weekends school free (only until the 15th when summer starts) sometimes school just seeps into everything. Today’s film is the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, a film I desperately have wanted to see for several reasons. Many people have an era they wish they were born in, well I firmly believe I belonged in the 1960s. From my staunch political activism, to my taste in music, I am a 60s girl. I’ve read several books about Laurel Canyon, Altamont and the like and the scene around the music industry is so different from today’s. I’ve also been taking a class in Vietnam and Gimme Shelter’s depiction of the Altamont Speedway concert symbolizes the end of the hippie movement. If you’re a fan of great music, history, the Stones, or great documentaries than Gimme Shelter is a must.
December 6th, 1969 the Rolling Stones (coming off a highly successful concert in New York) decided to hold a free concert at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. In between venue changes and other issues the Stones employ the help of Hell’s Angels as security, resulting in the infamous death of Meredith Hunter. Alongside the concert, the film shows their greatest hits performed live and the Stones relaxing and recording.
As mentioned above, I’m taking a class on the Vietnam War so I’ve been watching a lot of stuff from that time period (including a documentary on The Weather Underground that I might review, not sure, and Born on the Fourth of July). Gimme Shelter, so far, has been the best thing I’ve watched. I wanted to watch it before because I love the time period and this is a fantastic concert movie, removing the tragedy that has made this film infamous. The Maysles Brothers (who directed the documentary Grey Gardens) expertly blends concert footage in the beginning before seguing in the planning and execution of the Altamont Concert. There’s amazing renditions of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Satisfaction” and “You Gotta Move” before the concert and equally phenomenal performances of “Brown Sugar,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Under My Thumb.” For many, like myself, this is one of the best depictions of the Stones when they were young. There’s also lively performances from Tina Turner, who was the Stone’s opening act, and The Jefferson Airplane.
The majority of the hour and a half runtime revolves around the planning and set-up of Altamont. There’s a lot more information on Wiki and other places, but Gimme Shelter puts the audience right in the middle of the action as attorney Marvin Belli tries to negotiate with the owner of the Sears Point Raceway, the original location for Altamont. When the owner of Altamont raceway, Dick Carter volunteers his racetrack he makes a point of saying “I want the publicity.” There are comments made from unseen people “there’s not enough room” and that “nobody wants to do it there but we can.” The sheer confusion of the people in charge of putting this together is frustrating because they can’t even accurately state how many kids are going to show up; throughout the planning stages the head of the Stones mentions 5,000, 20,000 and 100,000…those are some pretty huge gaps in guesstimation!
The Stones themselves watch the dailies that the audience sees and come to terms with the events of December 6th. As the concert itself goes on the audience sees the Stones intimidated and kind of rude, assuming that the audience is provoking the Angels when it’s a mutual effort. Watching the scenes before the Stones seeing the dailies makes them realize how wrong they were about the audience, the Angels, and the concert in general. Things come into stark focus when a radio station starts taking calls from people who are there and a blame game of sorts goes on with audience members calling and Sonny Barger, head of the Hell’s Angels himself calling. These calls visibly upset Jagger and it’s startling to see this great rock star brought to his knees, especially considering a later scene of Jagger declaring Altamont a test to show “how America can handle itself in large gatherings.”
Altamont was supposed to be an East Coast Woodstock, complete with Michael Lang, the creator of Woodstock present for this. It was really funny for me to see the real Michael Lang in contrast to Jonathan Groff who played Lang in Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock. Altamont has been declared the end of the hippie/free love movement and I hate to say it seems appropriate. In the early moments of the concert the cameras capture the different people who have come to hear the Stones, the innocence depicted in a calm before the storm. There are women giving flowers, people kissing strangers, families bringing their small children, people in the midst of various drug trips, and a woman seeking donations to the Black Panther defense fund. All these different people coming together to experience the music…it’s a shame we don’t have that at all anymore (see Woodstock ’99).
As the concert gets later and later into the evening the mood turns ominous. Due to poor planning there’s a beautiful and frightening aerial shot of the huge lines of cars trying to get into the venue with a scene of Michael Lang saying to just leave it alone, it’ll work itself out. Another aerial shot shows the literal sea of people who have arrived, I kind of wish the film had gone back to the Stones manager to give another estimate of how many people are there! There are people hanging on scaffolding, crowding the stage. I at first thought these people were associated with the band…nope, regular people up on stage. That’s how low to the ground the stage was! People are being drug off-stage left and right.
Right before things go bad the Jefferson Airplane performs and guitarist Marty Balins gets punched in the head by an Angel. As one of the other band members gets on the mic to berate the Angels for their antagonism, an Angel gets on another mic to yell at the Jefferson Airplane member. It’s a moment of farce and laughs but it also details the chaos and fear that these people are becoming more hostile to the crowd. Here’s the scene in its entirety, events take place around the 4:15 mark and note that Grace Slick drops a few F-bombs.
Eventually the film takes its darkest turn as the film shows Hunter’s murder. It’s a brief moment that the Maysles play back for Jagger to see and it’s shocking. The murder is quickly moved away to showing a doctor or someone describing the events that are depicted. A doctor pops up to say that Hunter is declared dead and there’s a heart-wrenching scene that follows of Hunter’s girlfriend, who you see trying to push him back, as she is unaware of his death. A friend tries to placate her but all she can say is “They can’t find his heart.” It’s more upsetting than any scene in a Hollywood movie and it effectively closes the book on the film and the 1960s.
The movie isn’t all tragedy though, I’d hate to leave you with that. There are early scenes of the Stones having fun and recording their album. One of my favorite scenes in the entire documentary is when the group is recording at Muscle Shoals and listening to a cut of “Wild Horses.” The camera focuses on each member of the band reacting to the song including Keith Richards leaning back, mouthing the words. It’s a moment of sheer vulnerability and is reminiscent of the “Tiny Dancer” sequence in Almost Famous where no matter what happens, the music brings people together. While the events of Altamont were tragic and signaled the end of a generation, everyone came for the music and the music still endures to this day.
I loved Gimme Shelter and I recommend you see it!
Other stuff to throw out there. Our poll for the week is closed. Here are the results:
Cape Fear (5 votes) – WINNER
The Tempest (3 votes)
The Night of the Hunter (2 votes)
Stealing Beauty (1 vote)
Born on the Fourth of July (0 votes)
I’ll try to get Cape Fear up tomorrow and I’ll be doing more of these polls so please vote. The next poll focuses on which reviews you prefer. I’m also reminding, again, about the Loretta Young Giveaway. I’m giving away a copy of Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Loretta Young Giveaway, your name and address. The contest ends on May 19th. The banners for the Leading Man tournament will also be coming either today or tomorrow.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.