Gimme Shelter [DVD]
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1970
After December 6, 1969, critics, pundits, and journalists rushed to declare that the '60s were officially dead.
Only four months after the peace and love generation had made perhaps their boldest statement at the Woodstock music festival in New York, it all came crashing down on the opposite coast at the Alatamont Speedway where a free music festival headlined by the Rolling Stones collapsed into chaos and death. If Woodstock has become the culturally mythological representation of the potential of the '60s youth movement, Altamont was its inverse, the culturally mythological representation of how, in a single moment, it can all go wrong.
Yet, there is something too simplistic about such a dichotomy, especially in the tendency to see Woodstock and Altamont as inverse mirrors of each other and to read the violence of Altamont as the final nail in the coffin of the progressive '60s. Such a reading denies the essentially conflicted nature of the late 1960s in America, how progressive idealism, movements for civil rights, and new concepts of enlightenment coexisted side-by-side with urban unrest, rising street crime, political assassinations, and the war in Southeast Asia being piped into the family living room via the television. Altamont was not so much a shock to the system as it was the inevitable conclusion of one of the most turbulent decades in modern American history, when the very identity of the nation was being shaken at its foundation.
It is the dreadful sense of inevitability that haunts every frame of Gimme Shelter, the rightfully acclaimed documentary that chronicles the last 10 days of the Rolling Stones 1969 American tour, including the Altamont concert. Directed by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter is much like the '60s itself: both enthralling and incredibly disturbing.
The energy and vitality of the Rolling Stones as rock 'n' roll performers is undeniable--the film showcases the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band" at their artistic and performative peak. Yet, in the second half of the film, when the cameras turn their focus on Altamont, even the power of the Rolling Stones is quickly engulfed and disappears into the frenzy of violence around them. The same strutting vigor that made lead singer Mick Jagger a star in the first half of the film begins to look like a pathetic attempt to ward off the inevitable at Altmont as he tries to interest the spectators in what's happening on-stage, rather than the unrest in the crowd.
The Maysles brothers and Zwerin build Gimme Shelter in an extraordinary manner by cutting back and forth between their documentary footage and later footage of the Rolling Stones in an editing room watching the rough outtakes of what will later become the film itself. The Maysles brothers and Zwerin knew that, going into theaters, audiences would know what the outcome of the film would be. Discussions of the tragedy at Altamont had long since oversaturated the media, so its specter hangs over the entire film.
Thus, they open the film with the Stones performing a jubilant rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at their penultimate concert at Madison Square Garden, then cut immediately to the band members sitting quietly in the editing room, watching the footage and listening to recorded radio broadcasts about Altamont. Their reactions are hard to read, but it is obvious that they are affected. What should have been their greatest moment turned into the kind of infamy from which some never recover.
The first half of Gimme Shelter moves fluidly among several of the Stones' performances at Madison Square Garden, negotiations by their lawyer, Melvin Belli, to set up the Altamont concert, a Stones recording session, and the self-reflexive footage of them watching themselves on a flatbed editing machine. All of this serves as a set-up for the second half of the film, which focuses exclusively on the Altamont concert.
In hindsight, it is too easy to recognize everything that would eventually go wrong with Altamont. As the scenes of Belli making phone calls and quickly setting up meetings shows, the concert was rapidly and poorly organized, especially because the organizers were forced to change venues at the last minute. With 300,000 people descending from all over the country, there was not adequate parking, it was scheduled on a cold December day, and Altamont itself was far removed into the dusty, dry hills outside of San Francisco. And there was the decision to allow the Hell's Angels to provide security.
Apparently, the British Hell's Angels had earlier provided security at a free concert the Stones had given in Hyde Park in London. Therefore, it didn't seem like such a questionable idea to invite the California Hell's Angels to do the same thing at Altamont. In fact, it turned out to be the biggest mistake of all.
Once the cameras turn on the Altamont concert, the presence of the Angels becomes overwhelming. The documentary focuses on the entire day, showing the growing crowd and their antics, covering some of the early acts such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane. The whole time there is a growing sense of dread, even in the stark daylight. It is hard to describe, but there is just something wrong. Although many of the spectators appear happy and excited, others seem paranoid and agitated, strung out on bad acid and looking for trouble.
The documentary seems to indicate that what is wrong is the presence of the Hell's Angels. The camera continually finds itself trained on the bikers, especially on their leather jackets with the Hell's Angel's insignia emblazoned on the back. Even when the Stones come on stage that night and begin their set, the Angels' presence dominates; the camera loses Jagger over and over again to focus on those leather jackets. In one telling shot, the camera focuses on the hard gaze of a Hell's Angel glaring at Jagger who is singing, out-of-focus, in the immediate foreground. It is the biker's gaze, rather than Jagger's, that captures and holds the camera lens.
As most people know, the Altamont concert eventually degenerated into violence between the Hell's Angels and the unruly members of the crowd. It started early, during Jefferson Airplane's set, when the Angels started fighting with members of the crowd and lead singer Marty Balin got caught up in the fight. It all comes to a head, though, when the Stones come on stage.
Beginning with "Sympathy for the Devil," Jagger is unable to get through a single song without a scuffle breaking out in the front rows. He continually stops the music and implores that crowd to "cool it." His peace-and-love rhetoric about being "brothers and sisters" is pathetically inadequate to deal with the situation that has been building for so long. The crowd, stretched out endlessly before the stage, which was so exhilarating at Madison Square Garden, has become ominous.
It all climaxes with the on-screen stabbing--captured on film completely by accident and almost unnoticeable unless you know where to look--of an 18-year-old black man named Meredith Hunter by one of the Hell's Angels. The camera captures only the first fleeting seconds of Hunter's death at the hands of the Angels, but it is enough. The moment is replayed twice in Gimme Shelter as Mick Jagger watches it on the editing machine, and co-director David Maysles slows down the scene so Jagger (and we) can see exactly what happens.
It is a chilling moment in which a camera was in the right place at the right time, much like the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination or George Holliday's video of Rodney King being beaten by the Los Angeles police. Its existence on film serves to make it more real to us, which is all the more apparent when we realize that three other people died at Altamont the same night, yet it is Hunter's death, because it was forever captured on celluloid, that will always be associated with the concert.
When Gimme Shelter was first released theatrically, promoters tried to capitalize on its shocking nature, billing the film as "The music that thrilled the world ... and the killing that stunned it!" Yet, the documentary as a whole is about much more. Viewers who had reveled in the documentary about Woodstock were dismayed at Gimme Shelter and for good reason. It is a disturbing experience that is hard to forget.
Yet, like the '60s, it is a paradox, both a celebration and a condemnation. Gimme Shelter is a powerful cinematic experience precisely because, without narration or any other extradiegetic devices, it captures multiple aspects of its historical moment. There is both joy and terror, excitement and disillusionment. To try to subjugate a historical moment like Altamont to any one reading is to deny its diverse potential, and Gimme Shelter is the quintessential document of that moment precisely because it avoids that trap.
|Gimme Shelter: Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
|Supplements|| Audio commentary with co-directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, and collaborator Stanley Goldstein|
Outtakes, including never-before-seen Rolling Stones performances of "Little Queenie," "Oh Carol," and "Prodigal Son" at the 1969 Madison Square Garden concert
Excerpts from KSAN Radio's Altamont wrap-up broadcast, recorded Dec. 7, 1969, with new introductions by then-DJ Stefan Ponek
Altamont stills gallery by photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower
Two original theatrical trailers, 2000 re-release trailer, and trailers for Maysles Films' Grey Gardens and Salesman
Filmographies for Maysles Films and Charlotte Zwerin
"The Rolling Stones, Altamont, and GIMME SHELTER": 44-page booklet of essays and photographs
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Criterion put Gimme Shelter through a vigorous restoration process, which has resulted in the film looking better than it has in 30 years. Shot on 16-mm handheld cameras, the film has a rough, yet intimate feel with an emphasis on close-ups. The new high-resolution digital transfer gives the movie an exceptionally film-like appearance. Most of the transfer was made from the original 16-mm camera negative, although some scenes had to be taken from the blown-up 35-mm negative. The difference is immediately noticeable, as shots transferred from the 16-mm negative (which comprise probably 95% of the transfer) are smooth and clear, while the shots transferred from the 35-mm negative show exaggerated grain that is the unavoidable result of blowing up the negative. Overall, though, this transfer is absolutely fantastic. Colors look very good, especially in the concert scenes, and none of the scenes appear washed out or faded like earlier video and laser disc versions did. Criterion utilized the MTI Digital Restoration System to remove dirt and scratches, resulting in an image that is crisp and clean, with the exception of a few vertical lines in one slow-motion sequence. For an excellent discussion of the painstaking restoration process, see Josef Krebs' article in the November 2000 issue of Sound & Vision.|
|Using the original 35-mm magnetic multitracks, Criterion also put the soundtrack through a vigorous restoration process and went one step further: remixing the soundtrack into both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround. The results are outstanding, as the Rolling Stones' live performances of some of their best songs (including "Brown Sugar," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and "Under My Thumb") come to life in a rich surround mix that makes good use of all 5.1 channels. Because the original live performances were recorded on four discrete magnetic tracks (three for the band and one for the audience), Criterion sound engineers were able to create a mix that sounds brand new, not like a monaural or two-track stereo mix that is forcibly broken up into more channels. The soundtrack is clean and clear, with good bass and excellent fidelity.|
| It is on discs like this that The Criterion Collection proves it is still the leader in putting together impressive special editions that truly expand the context in which the film is seen, rather than just packing a disc with extras in order to fill space or claim the title "special edition." This DVD of Gimme Shelter includes a set of essential supplements that aids the viewer's understanding of both the film itself and the socio-historical context in which it was made and first released. |
The disc includes a scene-specific running audio commentary by co-directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (David Maysles passed away 13 years ago) and their collaborator/sound designer Stanley Goldstein. Much of the commentary is dedicated to technical aspects of making the documentary, but it also allows the filmmakers a chance to interpret their work. They also reveal some surprising tidbits, such as the fact that the night they filmed the Stones at Madison Square Garden was literally the first day of shooting; they have never even seen the Stones in concert before.
Also included are extensive excerpts from the four-hour post-Altamont broadcast on San Francisco's KSAN Radio. The excerpts are conveniently divided into chapters and introduced by Stefan Ponek, who was the KSAN DJ at the time. The radio broadcasts offer a window into the immediate reactions to the Altamant tragedy from all sides, including the concert promoters, many of the concert goers, and the Hell's Angels.
Rolling Stones fans should be excited about the extensive section of outtakes, which include several more live performances from the Madison Square Garden concert that were cut from the film. These include "Little Queenie," "Oh Carol," and "Prodigal Son." This section also includes outtakes from the editing room scenes and a sequence of Ike and Tina Turner backstage with the Stones. All of the film here was taken from a working print, so it is of considerably lesser visual quality that the film itself.
The disc is rounded out with an impressive collection of photographs from the Altamont concert by Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower; two original theatrical trailers; the 2000 re-release trailer; trailers for two other Maysles Films' documentaries, Grey Gardens and Salesman; filmographies for Maysles Films and Charlotte Zwerin; and an informative restoration demonstration of both the image and the sound that really shows how much of an improvement this DVD is over what has previously been available.
And, finally, while Criterion has always been known for including impressive liner notes written by renowned film scholars, critics, and filmmakers, the Gimme Shelter DVD goes above and beyond by offering a nicely designed 44-page booklet with half a dozen essays covering various facets of the film, from critic Amy Taubin's general assessment to Hell's Angels leader Ralph "Sonny" Barger's hyperbolic defense of the Angels' actions, some of which outright contradicts the film footage. Like the rest of supplements, the essays included offer a wide range of views on the divisive historical moment of Altamont.
©2000 James Kendrick