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Gimme Shelter: The Criterion Collection

Voyager Home Video

Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles,
and Charlotte Zwerin

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Review by Kerry Fall                    

At a point in the 1960s, being a Beatles' or a Rolling Stones' fan said a lot about who you were. It didn't mean you didn't like the other band, but there was a feeling of being loyal to one of these groups that marked you as a member of a particular rock 'n' roll camp. Generally, the Beatles represented the sweetness of youth, an air of pop innocence, young love, and the slightly conservative edge that comes from wearing a suit. The Stones, on the other hand, symbolized a bad-boy flamboyance, lust, and youthful anarchy. From the dark subject matter of their songs to Mick Jagger's jutting chest and hip gyrations that made Elvis look like he was standing still, the Stones had a dangerous edge that made them guys you wouldn't want to take home to meet the folks. In contrast, the Beatles had a "boy-next-door" quality that gave them a somewhat chaste air — even though, as Mick Jagger pointed out in the 25x5 video years later, the Beatles were just as cynical as the Rolling Stones.

It is this cynicism that is a pervading force in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, co-directed by Albert and David Maysles, with additional material by Charlotte Zwerin. The Maysles were introduced to the Rolling Stones by noted cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who knew the Stones were looking for someone to film their concert tour of the United States. And so the filmmaking brothers (having already gained moderate notoriety with previous documentaries that included the excellent Bible-selling story Salesman) quickly put together a crew and did a test shoot at the Stones' opening night at New York's Madison Square Garden. Thus began the making of Gimme Shelter, a collaborative journey that took the Maysles and the Stones from New York to California and the tour's tragic final concert at the Bay Area's Altamont Speedway, where Hell's Angels "secured" the stage, and where four people died.

When Gimme Shelter finally reached movie theaters in 1970, the incident at Altamont was on its way to becoming one of those milestones that mark times of great change. Instead of being a "day-in-the-life-of-a-famous-rock-group" movie, the film took on the slow-building suspense of a horror movie. When the movie was released, it felt like an apology of sorts, serving for many as an expression of a sense of loss and grief — the mourning of a decade that had seemed idyllic and really wasn't. At the beginning of the film, the Stones wear invincibility as if it were a right of celebrity. Even Jagger's Captain America superhero costume suggests a remove from the rest of us. The band's arrogance and ego are blended with a naiveté and innocence that the Maysles capture in a shy and tender manner but without ever looking away. The camera holds firm, past the point of discomfort, to look deeply into the emotional core of the group and, most particularly, of Mick Jagger. As editor Zwerin points out, before the filmmakers caught the Altamont tragedy on film, Gimme Shelter would have been a relatively straightforward documentary on an international rock phenomenon. Instead, the Maysles and Zwerin shaped it into a parable about fallibility and a metaphor for the end of an era — or as Albert Maysles simply states, Gimme Shelter became "much more than a concert film." The film opens with concert footage of the Garden show, but as the camera pulls back, you find yourself in the editing room with the Stones watching themselves perform. The camera holds tight on the reactions of the young, not-yet-jaded faces of Charlie, Mick, Keith, Bill, and Mick as they listen in seeming disbelief and discomfort to the-day-after-Altamont radio commentary with callers spouting opinions about the debacle and pointing fingers at the potentially guilty parties. The film moves forward with more performance footage (most notably a show-stopping orgasmic appearance by Tina Turner just before she dumped Ike), interspersed with preparations for the final show in the Bay area. (The filmmakers keep the tension palpable by making sure we never forget we are speeding towards the inevitable outcome at Altamont.) Celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli and a coalition of Stones' representatives attempt to organize this free concert with an air of detachment that is truly spooky. In retrospect, it seems painfully clear that this group of lawyers, promoters, and entourage hangers-on had no idea what they were doing. Is it just because we know what is going to happen at Altamont that it seems that anyone with any sense would have realized this was a bad idea? Or were they all just blinded by shortsightedness, or hubris, or greed?

From the moment the Stones arrive at Altamont, we know things are going to turn ugly. In fact, Jagger can't even get from the helicopter to his trailer before he is smacked in the mouth. As the crowd grows throughout the day and the Hell's Angels arrive to "secure" the stage, the air seems thick with foreboding. Beatings, scuffles, Angels hitting people with sticks, a member of Jefferson Airplane getting punched trying to help someone — the vibes definitely are bad. And when the Stones finally take the stage, they are quick to observe that their celebrity status holds no bearing here. It is almost comical to watch Mick and Keith admonishing the crowd as though they were children — thinking that they can somehow control the rising frenzy by sheer force of will. The film's depiction of what Albert Maysles calls "the disillusionment of youth" and the Stones' subsequent realization that they are not an invincible force can all be seen in Jagger's face at the end of the film. In a split second, in just one frozen frame, his expression belies a wariness that says it all.

I must admit that when I saw Gimme Shelter in 1970, I don't remember being much impressed. First, I was young and didn't know from historical context. Second, I was a Beatlemaniac, and although I found the Stones interesting, I was more inclined towards the wackier, frolicking Richard Lester films Hard Day's Night and Help!. Gimme Shelter was so serious and such a bummer — it was too much like a film adults would want to watch. Seeing it now, 30 years later, I find the film startling and brilliant, in good part because the supplements on the Criterion DVD greatly heighten the film as an experience. The audio commentary by Albert Maysles (his brother David died 13 years ago), editor Zwerin, and production collaborator Stanley Goldstein has a wealth of information. For example, Goldstein gives a clear explanation as to how the Hell's Angels ended up as the security team, and he debunks myths about why the band went on late. Maysles — now in his 70s and obviously still powerfully and deeply connected to this film — communicates how he views film composition and the images he and his team managed to capture here. Zwerin offers perhaps the most emotional and insightful dialogue about Gimme Shelter as she explains how she painstakingly put the film together. All three also offer a great deal of detailed technical information. A brief restoration demonstration offers before-and-after examples of the image, color, and sound restoration used to create this beautiful high-definition release. There is a full recording of the December 7, 1969 post-Altamont KSAN Radio program with a new introduction by former DJ Stefan Ponek, and an "Altamont Stills Gallery" with breathtaking photos by Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower (and I think these two extras alone are worth the price of the disc). There is also never-before-seen footage of the Madison Square Garden show that includes Stones covers of "Little Queenie" and "Prodigal Son," along with backstage outtakes (one of particular interest is with Tina Turner and Jagger trying to talk while Ike seems to be purposely playing his guitar so loud that they can barely hear each other). The original and re-release trailers are included as well as a 44-page booklet with essays by Jagger's former assistant Georgia Bergman, music writers Michael Lydon and Stanley Booth, ex-Oakland Hell's Angels Chapter Head Sonny Barger, and film critics Amy Taubin and Godfrey Cheshire. The film is presented in the original full-frame 1.33:1 and the audio restoration is so good that, in the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, it sounds like it was recorded yesterday and not on equipment from 30 years ago.

— Kerry Fall

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