Review by Michael Jacobson
Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson
Directors: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo, DTS
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: November 14, 2000
Gimme Shelter is quite possibly the most important
rock and roll film ever made, not only because it captured a legendary rock band
at their performing apex, but because it unwittingly documented one of popular
music’s most stunning and horrific events.
When co-directors David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte
Zwerin joined the Rolling Stones near the end of their 1969 tour of the United
States, they assumed they’d be preserving some great music and shows for
posterity. But it all changed when
a poorly planned and shoddily executed free concert at the Altamont Speedway in
San Francisco, initially dubbed “Woodstock West”, became a violent melee
between some hippie concert goers and the Hell’s Angels.
The infamous biker club was supposedly there for security, and the film
never makes it quite clear whose brilliant idea that was.
History and myth have attributed their hiring to the Stones’
themselves. They’ve denied it.
But no matter how it happened, the end result was a
dangerous mix of free spirited ‘flower children’ and big, burly, violent
bikers. Both sides had spent a good
day or so indulging in booze and drugs. Many
indications early on seemed to foreshadow the tragic events of that evening.
Fights were breaking out left and right.
The Angels, equipped with weighted pool cues, were bashing other concert
goers. Bands that took the stage earlier were witnessing a gradually
increasing chaos, and tried in vain to encourage calmness in the crowd.
“Easy, easy, easy,” Grace Slick pleads over and over.
Her band, Jefferson Airplane, are at a loss at whether to continue the
show. A match of words erupts
between Paul Kantner and one of the Angels over the fact that a member had
punched singer Marty Balin in the face while on stage.
To witness these events unfurling is like seeing a train wreck about to
happen in slow motion…there is a feeling of absolute despair, unease, and
By the time the Stones take the stage, we can’t help but
wonder, how did it all go so wrong so quickly?
At the beginning of the movie, we’re treated to several dynamite
concert clips from their Madison Square Garden show, just ten days earlier.
The music was great, and the band members, particularly front man Mick
Jagger, seemed to be having the time of their lives.
The atmosphere was electric. It
was rock and roll at its best. And
we see some of this footage film-within-a-film style, as the directors play it
for Mick and drummer Charlie Watts on a small movieola.
The mood is somber. Soon,
the two musicians are listening to a radio broadcast about the Altamont concert,
which obviously had just taken place. There
were four births, they reported, along with four deaths.
Suddenly, we realize we’re watching the footage under the sober spell
of those tragic events, alongside two band members who where there in the middle
of it, and obviously still in a state of shock over them.
The entire second half of the film deals entirely with the
Altamont concert, and we finally begin to see what had only been alluded to thus
far in the movie. People had begun
showing up a full day ahead of time. Drugs
were plentiful. The mood, even
early on, didn’t seem to be the one of love and acceptance Woodstock had been
noted for. It was more a mood of
chaos and disintegration. It
didn’t help that the big San Francisco event was supposed to have taken place
at Golden Gate park…a much better venue for a large scale free concert, with
better access, and where officials were more accustomed to maintaining security.
It had fallen through, leaving the band scrounging for another place to
play. Altamont Speedway was
offered, but there were problems. Could
it be secured? Could it conceivably
host several hundred thousand concert goers?
With parking for only about 12,000 being only one of the space problems,
could it possibly be pulled off?
Maybe it was all too much too soon.
Dick Carter, who ran the speedway, initially kept trying to emphasize
“Dick Carter’s Altamont Speedway” in the publicity.
The concert may have been a coup for him, but by the time it ended, he
probably wasn’t as enthused anymore to have his name associated with the
As the Stones fire up “Sympathy for the Devil”, the
mayhem beings. The crowd is right
up against the stage, which is hardly high enough by today’s standards.
Fans begin to rush up on stage as the band plays.
They stop. Mick, used to
firing up large audiences, is forced to try and calm everybody down.
He asks for the fighting to stop. The
band tries to play again. The
cameras capture haunting images from the crowds:
swinging sticks, pushing, shoving, people being dragged to the ground,
concert goers in tears. Something
dreadful has already happened: news is whispered into Mick’s ear while the band plays.
He asks for a doctor to help out and tend to a situation we haven’t
It all culminates in one of the gravest images ever
associated with rock and roll, captured quite by accident or by instinct by
cameraman Albert Maysles from the stage. An
18 year old black male, involved in some kind of scuffle with a Hell’s Angel,
pulls out a gun. The bikers grab
him and push him out of frame to the left, but not before we clearly see on of
the Angels stabbing him in the back. All
of this occurred within a few yards from the band as they played “Under My
Thumb”. Later, we see the
aftermath. A girlfriend is sobbing
as someone comforts her, assuring her the man isn’t dead, though we can see
his covered body being loaded up onto a chopper.
And Mick and Charlie, in a small film studio, watch soberly as the
directors calmly play the footage back for them (and us).
Frames are frozen, film creeps along at a painfully deliberate pace, and
there is no denying what we see: a
man being murdered, whose death was caught accidentally and permanently on film.
The backlash was instantaneous and vigorous.
The most visible target for blame was the Stones themselves, although
true history and this film have demonstrated that, like with the Titanic, there
was plenty of blame to go around. Mick
Jagger instantly became the devil incarnate…even inspiring (some say) the
bitter line in Don McLean’s “American Pie” about ‘Satan laughing with
delight’. It wasn’t really the
beginning of troubles for rock and roll…and it certainly wasn’t the end of
them. Still, whenever a violent act
erupts at a concert, which sadly still happens and at seemingly increasing rates
of occurrence, one can’t help but think back to Altamont Speedway, where the
world got its first glimpse of violent mayhem turning tragic as the music played
Some have pointed to Gimme Shelter as a major
turning point in rock and roll, and in pop culture in general.
Some have said that what was documented in the movie was not music, but a
point in history where innocence was lost and attitudes would forever change.
You could also say that about the Zapruder film, another piece of cinema
that accidentally became the documentary of a murder, and also one that has been
slowed, frozen, blown up and examined frame by frame over the years in an
insanely meticulous fashion, as though somewhere between the sprocket holes we
could find our innocence again.
Criterion, who was instrumental in the restoration of this
film for its theatrical re-release earlier this year, deserves praise for a job
well done. Those who have seen Gimme
Shelter only on previous home video releases are in for a treat.
The restoration job is near perfection!
Using the best available source materials, cleaning them up, reducing the
grain and bringing back the brightness to washed out coloring, the visual
results are spectacular. Images are clean and clear throughout, and the colors are
generally amazing, with remarkable detail.
This new print is as close to immaculate as a thirty year old film can
get: not much at all in the way of
scratches, spots, or dirt specks. There
are a lot of shots where foreground subjects are well lit against a backdrop of
black, and those would have been distracting had there been the normal debris
and aging artifacts associated with a film this old. The blacks are deep and true, with no distortions or evidence
of compression, and lighter images play against them with excellent balance and
contrast. This version, which also
features a few clips restored after having originally been trimmed for a PG
rating, is the version of Gimme Shelter for all posterity.
You have a choice…stereo or 5.1 soundtracks.
I highly recommend the latter, which, from the first notes of Keith
Richard’s guitar, puts you right in the middle of the concert action.
All five channels carry the music and crowd noise, and it’s about as
close as you can get to live sounding without buying a ticket.
The dynamic range is remarkable, too, as the film tends to get a bit
quieter during the studio scenes and pre-concert meetings.
The dialogue is clean and clear, and the front stage handles it all well,
lulling you into a sense of comfortable volume. Then the music will explode from your speakers all over
again. I found this remix to be
high quality, and one that made practical and effective use of multi-channel
capabilities. The songs sound
great, and fans of the Stones are going to be thrilled.
Where to start? This
30th Anniversary DVD from Criterion is loaded to the gills.
For starters, there some very cool deleted scenes:
one involving the studio mixing of the song “Little Queenie”,
followed by love performances of that song, “Oh Carol” and “Prodigal
Son”, plus some backstage footage of Mick with Ike and Tina Turner, where Ike
lets Mick jam on his guitar a little bit. There
is a full length commentary by co-directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
with collaborator Stanley Goldstein (recorded separately but edited together),
featuring a lot of good information about the evolution of the project and how
this became one of the few Rolling Stones’ planned concert films to actually
make it into release. There are a
number of excerpts from the KSAN radio broadcast after the Altamont concert,
including listener call-ins and one by then head of Oakland’s Hell’s Angels
Sonny Barger. There is an amazing stills gallery of photos from the
concert, which demonstrate its unraveling.
There are a total of five trailers, three for this film and two for other
Maysles brothers’ pictures. Filmographies
for the directors are included, as well as a terrific restoration demonstration
that really documents what a thorough job was done with this presentation.
Finally, though I don’t usually consider them a feature, there is a 44
page booklet filled with terrific essays, reviews and remembrances of the film
and the events captured in it. A
simply outstanding package.
Gimme Shelter is not just another concert film…in fact, I don’t think you have to be a big fan of the Rolling Stones to appreciate it. It’s a powerful, sober look at what was a, if not necessarily THE, turning point in rock and roll history…an unflinching look at an infamous moment in pop culture where a free concert turned violent with tragic results. It’s mesmerizing and haunting, filled with great music and unforgettable images. And, as usual, Criterion delivers this title with utmost attention to quality in terms of transfer and features. If you love rock and roll, or if you love great cinema, but especially if you love both, this disc is a must own.