Just in case you were wondering, the answer is yes, hiring the Hells Angels to provide concert security is a terrible idea. Actually, I apologize. That’s not entirely true. Promising the Hells Angels they can drink as much as they wish during the show as long as they provide said security is what’s truly unconscionable. Such decision-making begs for comprehension, and yet it isn’t worthy.
The Altamont Free Concert in December 1969 was an absolute travesty, and Direct Cinema documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were there to capture all of the best bits as they happened. As the title may suggest, the purpose of the documentary was to follow The Rolling Stones on their 1969 US tour, but after the events at Altamont, there wasn’t any possibility that it would be just another concert film. In fact, it was the poor management of and violent murder at Altamont that changed the original narrative entirely and morphs the documentary into something much more versatile.
Surprisingly, Gimme Shelter seamlessly feels like three different movies for the price of one. In it are elements of concert film, ‘making-of’ documentary and penetrating human drama, and the skill with which Zwerin and Ellen Hovde bob in and out of these sections through editing is a marvel.
The archetypal scenes of a concert film are pretty standard. Aside from Altamont, the film shows us clips from one of the Stones’ shows at Madison Square Garden. Naturally, because he’s the lead singer, Mick Jagger has the Maysles brothers’ lens primarily fixed upon him, seen in an alternating series of medium shots and close-ups. With additional cameras set up behind the drum kit and around the other members, the point is to highlight the energy and stage presence these seminal rock stars command, especially at the height of their music playing careers.
From the very first song we’re shown, however, it never seems as though that vitality concertgoers were hoping for was fully present. The Stones played three New York City gigs in two days, the tour was nearly over after beginning at the start of November and there were five previous dates when the band was playing two shows in one day. It is very likely that they were exhausted by the tour’s end, and as a result there’s an air of melancholy that hadn’t been fully internalized, or even had yet to completely materialize. Aside from the prior knowledge of Altamont being the cause for such emotions, it’s a stark break from the hope and positive liveliness of youth concert films normally communicate.
Additionally, Zwerin and the Maysles’ Direct Cinema qualifications come in handy during the moments leading up to Altamont, namely the meetings planning the concert and the ‘behind the scenes’ footage, for lack of a better term, at the concert itself. The documentary Woodstock came out the same year as Gimme Shelter, and over the course of that film’s three and a half hour madness, it highlights how logistically poor the festival planning was and how catastrophic it could have been. With Altamont taking place around four months later, one of the biggest questions in the lead up was how it would compare to Woodstock, and surely the context behind it was simultaneously about the artists involved and if Altamont would run more smoothly.
Even with prior knowledge of Woodstock, the scenes of backroom logistics, legal obligations and the running of the festival proved that no one learned a thing from Woodstock. During these moments, the pacing is a little more frantic and the Maysles brothers, as if it were instinctive, draw themselves into the action a little closer. It isn’t invasive view, but rather mindful hovering. Tensions are flying high, but they give their audience a proper view of the events that unfold from a reasonable distance that’s not only close enough to sense the drama, but also detached enough to remain professional.
And speaking of drama, Zwerin and the Maysles’ eye for humanism makes this film stand out more than its unique circumstances ever could have. For example, after the first song at the New York concert, the film cuts to a scene of Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts overlooking the film’s editing process. Unfortunately for them, they’re forced to relive that fateful night when a Hells Angel calls into a radio show playing in the background, giving his take on what transpired. Here, the camera lingers on the two’s faces in long take close-ups that see their expressions quickly change from excitement about the concert footage to gloomy dismay.
From this moment, the rest of the film’s tone is set, as every passing minute is filled with tense anticipation for the festival’s harrowing end. Even during scenes of the Stones outside of concert playing, including their recording part of the album “Sticky Fingers” at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and relaxing at various hotels, there’s an underlying anxiousness. Appropriately, these segments do not show them submitting to the stereotypical rock star overindulgence of drugs and sex, but rather relaxing. It would have made for uneven tone, and it’s more compelling, as well.
Above all, Gimme Shelter wants to be the antithesis to Woodstock and declare dead the “Peace and Love” generation for whom the bell tolled. Similar themes of youth and innocence are put to the torch, paving the way for a new era of counterculture and activism. Everything from the tired concert performances, to the frustrations of keeping order at Altamont to the murder of Meredith Hunter signals the decade fading out and the idea that the “Peace and Love” of the late ‘60s was all too fleeting. It’s the furthest thing from hopeful, but it was a primer for the decade to come.