Synopsis: Called “the greatest rock film ever made,” this landmark documentary follows the Rolling Stones on their notorious 1969 U.S. tour. When 300,000 members of the Love Generation collided with a few dozen Hell’s Angels at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway, direct cinema pioneers David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin immortalized on film the bloody slash that transformed a decade’s dreams into disillusionment.
Gimme Shelter 8.25
The Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969, is the bastard child of Woodstock. Whereas the Woodstock concert will forever be seen as the moment in time when the world saw the immense power of the “Peace and Love” movement, Altamont has long been considered its death knell; according to many, after Altamont, nothing would ever be the same.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is the visual document of this concert, of its inception and the hours leading up to it. It consists of four parts: a Stones concert in New York City featuring Ike and Tina Turner as opening acts, behind the scenes footage of the wheeling and dealing that got Altamont together, the Altamont concert itself, and footage of Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger separately watching the footage after the fact.
Although Wyman is intently watching the screen, but seemingly masking a smile, there is a very sombre atmosphere during Jagger’s review of the concerts and incident. One gets the sense that he is both revisiting his own on-stage experience and also watching it from an outsider’s perspective. Since we see the pair at the onset, we get the sense that this will not be a joyous affair; Jagger is hardly enjoying himself.
On stage, however, we are presented with a masterful frontman. I am and never have been a Rolling Stones fan, but I must recognize just how mesmerizing he could be while in full swing. His strut, his mannerisms, his manic energy, they all combine to create a showman that one can barely keep one’s eyes off of. He is a force of nature, the unmistakable centre of attention, a rock and roll demigod of incredible potency.
Similarly, through ‘Gimme Shelter’, I discovered in Tina Turner a performer I could never have imagined, after having only known her for her ’80s hits. I could not believe her stage presence at the New York concert. She is absolutely smouldering! Not even “sexy” can describe the pure sex that was on stage that night. Wow. And what a voice! What tremendous power!
But Jagger’s skill loses much of its magic at Altamont. Hobbled by an ominous vibe that forced him to interrupt the show’s flow continuously, he and The Stones could barely get their groove on (or, at least, this is what the full suggests – reality may be different). Time and again, aggressive interactions -or conflict- between crowd members and security happened both on stage or off and would build additional tension.
For reasons unexplained in the film, security was handled by the Hell’s Angels. This was a terrible mistake. Not only had the Angels brought poker sticks to beat people up with, but many of them were drinking and losing control at the slightest act that they considered provocative. Right from the onset, beatings took place in the crowd, completely ruining the mood for both audience and performers alike.
In fact, Jefferson Airplane were clearly distraught by what was happening. Not only did they have to stop midstream, but Grace Slick tried to talk the people down. To no avail, it seems – one of the band members was also struck. Meanwhile, The Grateful Dead are shown arriving but never performing. I don’t know if they decided to skip the show due to the violence, but this is what the doc suggests.
The problem is that it’s hard to know if this account of the Altamont concert is unbiased. From the start, we were given a negative vibe: from Jagger’s somber viewing, to the bullying lawyer trying to wrangle the band into position, to the downbeat outlook of the concert’s organization, to the sight of the many concert goers who were totally bad tripping, we got a sense that things were not right.
Whether the filmmakers skewed the data in the editing room or not, it doesn’t change the fact that there was considerable violence at Altamont – it was quite the reverse of what was taking place at Woodstock, where everyone seemed to be getting along, despite the less-than-ideal conditions and the strain it must have put on everyone involved. No, this was nothing at all like Woodstock, even though the Stones and the organizers (and their egos ) probably would have wished it to be.
At Altamont, not only were there confrontations, but there was even a murder right in front of the stage. In fact, we see the murder taking place on camera: it’s mere seconds, a moment, and the man does appear to have a gun, but what’s clear in the footage is that a Hell’s Angels member pulled a knife on him and stabbed him at least twice. There is no mistaking that. This would never have happened at Woodstock.
I am not a fan of The Stones, but I needed to include this document in my collection. I will forever be haunted by the look on Jagger’s face during the concert, as he realizes the extent of the situation. At first drunk, one sees him sober up quite fully, trying to ascertain just what to do next. He starts, he stops, he starts again, trying to distract the crowd from what’s happening, and has to stop again, eventually pleading for sanity to return.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is a disturbing look at the death of the hippie movement, having peaked about a year earlier. When Altamont begins, we immediately get the sense that a storm has been brewing, and by the time Altamont wraps up, we discover that this storm has washed away the remaining hopes seeded in the “Peace and Love” movement. Disillusioned, drained, the concert-goers walked away from Altamont and from a movement that could -and should- have changed the world.
It may very well have been on its way out, in its last throes (one can never truly tell), but Altamont made sure that it didn’t die a peaceful death. At Altamont, it wasn’t just a man who was murdered. Gazing upon the faces of its distraught and terrorized audience, one gets the impression that Altamont also killed the idyllic dream of a whole generation.