Gimme Shelter (1970)


There's Rock Docs... then there's not so quite a good time...
There's Rock Docs... then there's not so quite a good time...

Genre: Music Documentary

Starring: Mick Jagger (Freejack), Keith Richards (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger TidesPirates of the Caribbean: At World's End)

Directed By: Albert & David Maysles (Grey GardensSalesman)

Overview: The rock documentary of The Rolling Stones and the tragic free concert that ended The Summer of Love.

Documentaries, being what they are, often discuss a particular historical event, and so does Gimme Shelter. Though the film explores the events of the free Rolling Stones Altamont Speedway concert of December 6, 1969 in a linear fashion, it doesn’t particularly mince the assumption that everyone understands the tragic events that made this concert famous. I’ll even go as far as to say that knowing about it beforehand enhanced this documentary, as every joyous scene was clouded by the dark haze that is the knowledge of what would come to pass at The Stones’ most infamous concert. To juxtapose that fiasco with the very successful Madison Square Garden shows they did days before (November 27th and 28th) drives a shameful nail into both events. All this to say, I won’t consider talking about the tragedy that befell this “End of an Era” catastrophe as spoiler, since you should probably know about it already. Be warned.

We open Gimme Shelter with a young and ridiculously flamboyant Mick Jagger regaling the audience at a sold-out show in Madison Square Garden. His long pink scarf and black shirt with a single white Greek letter makes him look like a superhero with a flowing cape as he flies around the stage. That letter is the Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet and a chillingly poetic symbol of The End, of death. Gimme Shelter is not a happy-go-lucky collection of hit songs done by charismatic, colourful characters, it is the story of a disaster in the making. That disaster is a thrown-together free concert with the hottest band in the universe headlining – The Rolling Stones. Four months after The Summer of Love as immortalized by Woodstock, The Stones want to do it again, this time in L.A. Unfortunately, a hasty set-up and a Hells Angels' security team made for a disastrous event. The one particularly shocking event, the disaster of a murder perfectly captured on film is but a short moment in Gimme Shelter, but its build-up is a road littered with warning signs. The documentary also follows legal wrangling about the venue, hundreds of thousands of fans heading to the Altamont Speedway and unplanned preparations - from shoddy stage building and a lack of necessary facilities to the security staff themselves: outlaw bikers being paid in beer. Through it all we see The Stones, their music, their recordings and the editing of the film that will become Gimme Shelter.

Madison Square Garden - November '69
Madison Square Garden - November '69

As expected we hear some incredible hits. Obviously, there’s "Gimme Shelter" and the nefarious "Sympathy for the Devil", but there’s also the popular "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", "Brown Sugar", and "Under My Thumb". Not being a huge fan of The Stones, it was nice to hear more little-known numbers, ones I’d consider B-Sides: "Jumpin' Jack Flash", "You Gotta Move", "Wild Horses", "Love in Vain", "Honky Tonk Women" and "Street Fighting Man". The cinematography is slick - a cinema vérité with edge. There’s long shots of Keith Richards’ snakeskin boots as he works, amusing moments like seeing Mick Jagger’s scarf closed in a car door.

The concert footage is appropriately vast while still capturing so much up-close detail of musicians and their spectators, though surprisingly, the audience is shown not as peace-loving hippies who want to love and peacefully listen to tunes, but as selfish apathetic droves in a drugged-out daze, contradicting the message of Woodstock, of empassioned anti-war activism. One woman collects money for the Black Panther Defence League, her mission is to get the Black Panthers off the streets, legally, socially, or “outright murder them because they are only Negroes after all”. At these last words, a drug-hazed Black man puts money in the bucket, staring off into the ether. Another scene shows a woman quietly asking that they send help to the violent stage, “get a doctor… or they won’t play music” she pleads, waiting for the next song. Finally there’s the murder itself and the beatings leading up to it, and how the scores of peaceniks just don’t act. Even the 1001 books states that Gimme Shelter, “[suggested] that the counterculture was really a lot of drugged out fools who thought murder was a ‘bummer’ ”- a very interesting perspective indeed.

Amidst it all is music, that thing 'which hath charms to soothe the savage breast', but it is an overhanging awkwardness - dread even - that permeates Gimme Shelter. Several scenes show beatings while music plays, one scene has Tina Turner singing "I've Been Loving You Too Long" with Ike, the man we now know was using her as his own personal punching bag, looking on. In short, Gimme Shelter is a documentary about the world’s best music ruined by its own dark context - on purpose.

You won't have any sympathy for these Devils.
You won't have any sympathy for these Devils.

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 8 Script: 9 Plot: 8 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 82% (Come Out And See)

The film does not cast anyone in a truly positive light, and that what makes Gimme Shelter so incredible. That The Stones let this damning doc happen as a lesson and a warning rather than something to be buried... for as much as they should have seen the signs at the time, it’s easy to respect that the film was made this way.

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