At the beginning of Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, Mick Jagger is ready to party. With the occasional blips and wipeouts in the guise of minor drug busts and the tragedy surrounding the death of ousted bandmate Brian Jones in July of 1969, Jagger and the rest of The Rolling Stones had been riding a cocksure wave of success by torching the charts and, with the exception of drummer Charlie Watts, running through a shocking amount of groupies. But in the film’s final, masterful freeze fame, Jagger’s face, creased with lines that seem to have materialized in the course of 52 weeks, reveals a man who has been forever changed and whose naïveté burned out not only a piece of himself but caused a great deal of splash damage to a generation already reeling from continued bad vibes.
By the time of the ill-fated and lethal concert at the Altamont Motor Speedway in December 6th, 1969, The Rolling Stones had been flirting with the darker edge of rock for a handful of years. Always seen as the scruffier, rawer version of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones made it official in 1966 with Aftermath, a baroque album that dared to be moodier than what had come before, kicked off (on the U.S. release anyway) with “Paint it Black.” After its release, Jagger and company had all but soaked up every bit of naughty, provocative, and mysteriously dark energy for their own commercial ends. Watching them on the 1969 tour that ended with Altamont, it is apparent that the sexual energy of the band was so thrilling because it seemed so dangerous. And, finally, at the end of it all, sexual energy gave way to shocking violence and it actually was dangerous. And nobody could do anything about it.
Released a year after the tragedy, Gimme Shelter never set out to be a dour answer to Woodstock, the Michael Wadleigh documentary that saw a wide release the same year, any more than The Rolling Stones deliberately set out to set fire to any goodwill the Woodstock festival had engendered ten weeks prior to Altamont. In fact, Gimme Shelter has all the hallmarks of being a free-form document about being on the road with The Rolling Stones. Early, joyous concert engagements are intercut with the band watching the replay on a Steenbeck. The press conference announcing a Woodstock-like free concert in San Francisco at the end of the tour is met with good cheer. A stopover in Alabama as the band enters the Muscle Shoals Studios to mix a single is an absolute delight and Keith Richards listening to the playback of an early take of “Wild Horses” in his snakeskin boots and red velvet pants supplies the film with one of its few moments of pure joy. Ike and Tina Turner burning the house down as undercard performers on the bill of a Stones show on the tour with Tina bathed in the most lurid of crimsons before disappearing into the backdrop with only her amazing mini sparkling in the darkness as she wildly undulates provides another.
But, right before the film begins to settle on the free concert, the dark forces begin to creep in. Jagger can’t get through “Honkey Tonk Women” without getting mobbed onstage. He struts around like a barefoot peacock, moving the crowd at will but with the cushion of the show’s security which is, naturally, a harbinger of things to come at Altamont. And this is underscored by the scenes involving San Francisco attorney Mel Belli trying to jam the free concert through despite every single red flag that gets dangled in front of his face.
Perhaps the height of irresponsibility until Woodstock 99 or the Fyre Festival, Belli and the tour organizers hustling to get a venue locked down less than five days before the actual show date was an incredibly insane idea and, when watching the film, it’s apparent that nobody on the business end of things really understood the magnitude of what was coming. In fact, “You have no idea what goes on here” is an actual quote by someone in the room to highlight just how out of their depth they are in organizing and understanding such an event. It’s news to them that people are already traveling to the venue while they’re still haggling with landowners to actually secure the space. Later, a conversational stalemate occurs when the organizers grapple with the fact that there are going to be 80,000 automobiles arriving but have only nailed down enough space to fit but 12,000 of them. In the end, over 300,000 attended and squeezed into a space probably not fit for a third of that number.
Once Gimme Shelter settles into its third act, it becomes a full on horror show (with some assist from George Lucas who is credited as one of the camera operators and whose NoCal home base was not too awful far from Altamont). The people converging on the venue look suspiciously like those that showed up at Woodstock but the atmosphere feels completely different. Gone are the verdant horizons of the summer on the eastern seaboard, replaced by dead ass December in Northern California where everything is dormant and the reigning color is tan. There is a lot of Woodstock high emanating from a beaming Mike Lang, kid genius who pulled Woodstock off. At Altamont, he doesn’t beam for too awful long.
The stage setup is ridiculous as it was constructed in the lowlands; the performers trapped in a bowl where a bunch of pissed off, cold, inebriated, drugged out fans were virtually staring down at them while dark currents ran rampant with every passing second. The filmmakers get the audience up close and personal with people on horrific trips, people collecting for the Black Panther defense fund, and a young girl who seems not to care too much that she’s “been falling down a lot lately.” A girl yells for a doctor with concern before smiling and playing a recorder, one of the most dreaded of all instruments. There is a sense of a shambolic recreation of Woodstock with megaphones blaring for people to stay off the scaffoldings, the excitement of a child being born, and a lot of vacant “far outs,” but Gimme Shelter shows in the most tragic of detail how capturing lighting in a bottle twice is all but a fool’s errand.
An appearance by The Flying Burrito Brothers provides the one positive musical moment at the concert but it eventually devolves into violence with the Hells Angels, hired as security on the advice of The Grateful Dead, wielding pool cues and chains seemingly at random. Jefferson Airplane’s lead vocalist, Marty Balin, gets knocked out by the Angels. And, for their part, The Grateful Dead, knowing a fucked up scene when they saw one, get right the hell back in their helicopter and leaves without playing when Michael Shrieve, the hero Santana drummer from the Woodstock festival, warns them about the Jefferson Airplane debacle the second the Dead land. “That doesn’t seem right,” Phil Lesh mutters when hearing the news of the violence and mayhem.
By the time the Stones hit the stage, it’s mostly all chaos, all the time. Jagger, who gets punched in the face by a fan within seconds of arriving at the venue, tries to be cute by saying that people tend to get weird when they try and play “Sympathy For the Devil” during a pause to break up some carnage in the front of the stage. When launching back into it, Jagger conjures the worst energy possible. Dangerously leering Hells Angels, a completely lost naked woman, and a outlier dog all seem to add to the chaos and terrifyingly suggest that they have crossed into a world with no real boundaries. The song continues while shit falls apart around them. Dangerous people get even more dangerously close to Jagger and the rest of the band. At some point, it had to occur to everyone that it wasn’t a question whether or not they were going to pull the plug on the show but just how in the world they were going to escape with their lives intact as this was a pure nightmare unfolding in the slowest and most deliberate manner. Meredith Hunter, an 18 year-old African American kid in a striking, lime green suit, floats through the sea of people without any knowledge that he will be soon be killed by the Angels. And, in turn, the audience has no idea that they will bear witness to that terrible tragedy. But the Maysles and Zwerin are unflinching and not only do we see it, we’re forced to reckon with it along with Jagger as he watches it for the first time on playback.
Altamont forever changed Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones. They retired to the studio for the next three years and released Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, two of their very best albums. They went back on the road in 1972 to tour in support of the latter album but they took on a more rollicking approach that highlighted their rock star decadence but ensconced in the kind of hedonistic-but-harmless party vibe that would be etched into the DNA of the multiple L.A. metal bands who counted the Stones as chief influencers. As I write this, Charlie Watts is the latest of The Rolling Stones to exit the band, having died in 2021 at the age of 80. His passing now adds a new wrinkle and contour to the film. All due respect given to the immensely talented Daryl Jones, The Rolling Stones BARELY survived the departure of original bassist Bill Wyman in 1994. Without Charlie, the whole original rhythm section, the thing that made the whole enterprise swing, is now lost to time. But, by jove, Gimme Shelter is a lasting and brilliant document of that tipping point before The Rolling Stones stopped being a band in favor of becoming a brand and could conquer just about everything except the shifting sands of time and the unrest brought about by it.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain