Gimme Shelter is a movie in conflict with itself. Intended as a performance film chronicling a celebratory Rolling Stones concert to close out their 1969 tour, Gimme Shelter ends up being at odds with its own reality. Due to the tragic events of the day, the movie can no longer be what it’s supposed to be. Yet, the three directors--Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin--don’t settle for just telling the story of a concert gone wrong, they instead crack the whole thing open and sift through the damage, making it as much about the mechanics of nonfiction and a subject’s relationship with the camera as about the night the Rolling Stones tried to put on a free show.
The Stones gig at Altamont Speedway, just outside San Francisco, is legendary. For some, it is the death knell of the 1960s. Following just a few months after Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, a music documentary that Gimme Shelter has much in common with--both don’t just show what is happening onstage, but the business wheeling and dealing required to put such an event together--except the peace and love vibe of the bigger festival is all but gone, drowned in one long brown acid rain.
The lead-up to the day shows us the Stones out on the road, in the recording studio, and in the boardroom. Altamont almost didn’t happen, as a large enough venue was hard to procure. It’s only in the 11th hour that the racetrack becomes an option, leaving the band and its crew to set the whole thing up overnight. Hindsight shows it would have been better to postpone and put some more time into it. The stage is barely up before the crowds arrive, and the logistics aren’t completely thought through. From the get-go, the performance spot is overtaken by attendees. They climb lighting towers, swarm the backstage area, and even take up residency on the stage itself. Patience dwindles, communication breaks down, and the event’s security, the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, gets testy. During a performance by Jefferson Airplane, one of the Hell’s Angels even pastes singer Marty Balin in the face when Balin tries to break up a fight. The Grateful Dead arrive and immediately turn around and leave once they hear what has been going on.
By the time the sun has set and the Stones take the stage, there’s no turning back. The band stops and starts, trying to quell the violence. The bikers line the front of the stage. In one fateful moment, one of the cameras even captures a Hell’s Angel, standing mere feet from Mick Jagger, tripping his face off (judging by his appearance, he might think this literally). Mick either doesn’t notice or just phases him out. The Angels eventually chase the dude off into the crowd, as if surrendering one of their own to maintain their appearance of power.
We only see Meredith Hunter twice in Gimme Shelter. The first time, we have no reason to suspect we should know who he is. He just stands out in the crowd: a tall African American man in a bright green suit. The second time we see him, the Stones are playing “Under My Thumb,” and Meredith Hunter is being attacked by the Hell’s Angels, one of whom stabbed him and killed him.
It’s interesting that the filmmakers didn’t sequester this terrible turn for a third-act reveal. I suppose given that it’s a known news event, and essential to why the movie exists, there is no real reason to withhold the information. Instead, at the start, we are told that there were four births and four deaths during Altamont via a radio broadcast playing for Charlie Watts in the directors’ editing suite. Though the full extent of what went down isn’t explained, we do hear from one of the Angels calling in to defend the fatal decision--the murdered man kicked someone’s motorcycle--and it’s the only explanation Gimme Shelter offers. The film is an observation, not an investigation. There are multiple cuts back to the studio throughout the film, to Watts or Jagger watching what we are watching, a post-modern commentary that was far ahead of its time. Watts remains stone-faced, his intense eyes peering back at the camera probing him for a reaction. Jagger, on the other hand, is visibly shaken when they roll the stabbing back and forth for him, like Jim Garrison toggling the kill shot on the Zapruder film, pausing on the moment we can see Hunter’s gun, and then the biker’s knife raised in the air. The singer tries not to show too much, but his poker face isn’t all that sturdy, leading to the infamous shot where he stares into the camera, and they freeze on his ambiguous expression. Is he angry that the lens would expose him like this, or is it the reaction of a little boy caught where he shouldn’t be? It’s an eerily private moment--we are spying on the man spying on himself.
In this, the Maysles brothers and Zwerin are far ahead of their time, laying the groundwork for filmmakers like Errol Morris to dig deeper into their subjects, urging the kind of self-reflection and confession that would ultimately become de rigueur on reality TV. Beyond parsing through the crime, Gimme Shelter also sets the standard for concert films, defining the genre with its mix of performance and business. Shot with multiple cameras, Gimme Shelter captures the Stones at their bluesy peak, having settled into an almost laconic groove, offering more laid-back and countrified versions of even some of their bigger, faster hits like “Jumping Jack Flash.” There are no obvious overdubs, and no added sheen to the cinematography. The concert scenes here are dirty and raw. Whether a Stones fan or not, you’ll understand why they were so popular in 1969 and why they have endured--though Jagger chicken dance remains as confusing to me as ever. (Sexy? Really, ladies?) Music aficionados are also treated to an amazing version of Ike and Tina Turner covering “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” But you also don’t have to care about the music at all to find Gimme Shelter compelling.
The Stones aren’t exactly innocents at the start of Gimme Shelter, nor do the Bay Area hippies in the audience appear to be as peaceful and gentle as their mythology would have us believe. Yet, there is still a feeling of something passing at the close of the film, of a naïveté being put to bed. Perhaps it’s that they can’t maintain the illusion that it’s all good vibes and love any longer, that they have to acknowledge the darkness that lies within the scene and, naturally, the individuals that define it. As the film fades, the directors cut back to the audience first walking into Altamont, an eager and polite group, but they layer a live rendition of the movie’s title track over the top, its lyrics a portent of the inevitable evil to come.