Gimme Shelter was released in 1970 and directed by Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin. The film was released by Criterion on December 1st, 2009 as spine #99. The Maysles Brothers and Zwerin also directed spine #122, The Salesman, and The Maysles Brothers directed spine #123, Grey Gardens, and spine #361, The Beales of Grey Gardens.
The documentary follows The Rolling Stones on their 1969 US tour, and its violent conclusion at the Altamont Free Concert in Northern California.
Often considered one of the greatest documentaries of all time, Gimme Shelter is known for its Direct Cinema approach. The Maysles Brothers and Zwerin aim simply to depict the events as they happened without interviews, voiceovers, or traditional documentary techniques. The film cuts between concert footage throughout the tour, the lawyers and suits efforts to organize the free concert, and Stones reactions to watching to documentary footage, before finally centering on the insanity of the Altamont Free Concert. The editing by Zwerin, and Ellen Hovde is a large part of what makes the documentary so effective, and visually striking.
The early concert footage is a great look at the band near the height of their success, but where the film really comes alive is in its focus on the Altamont crowd. The camera operators get right in the thick of the 300,000 people, capturing all the fevered dancing, fights, nude romps, and acid trips (Fun Fact: George Lucas is one of the cameramen credited). The footage is a testament to how calm in comparison the earlier concerts were and how unprepared the event’s organizers were for everything from parking to security. Much of the violence that ensued was brought on by the clash between the crowd and the Hell’s Angels (who were hired as extra security and paid in $500 worth of beer). The ensuing violence is used partly for ironic effect when taken with the earlier footage about how the concert would be Woodstock West, the greatest party of 1969, put on solely for the purposes of having a good time. Despite The Stones notorious reputation, the footage shows how out of their depth they were, how hard they tried to maintain the peace, and how upset the tragedy made them. The film provides a look at the band as performers, and as human beings coping with their part in unfortunate events.
Gimme Shelter isn’t just a concert film; it’s a stunning portrait of loss, one best summed up by that iconic final shot of Mick Jagger’s face. The footage, put in historical context, tells the story of the dying hippie movement of peace and love, and the violent, destructive mentality brought on by the escalating war in Vietnam. The film so much reflects the changing times that it couldn’t be more effective if it had been scripted. It’s an insightful look at perhaps the worst concert of all time, one that resulted in four births, four deaths, and numerous counts of injures, property damage, and theft.
Criterion offers a number of features in this well put together release. The DVD comes with directors and collaborator commentary, bonus Stones performances from the tour, the KSAN Radio wrap-up following the Altamont Free Concert, a stills gallery, theatrical trailers, and best of all, a booklet of essays featuring film critics, music writers, and former head of the Oakland Chapter of Hell’s Angels, Sonny Barger. The Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 sound mixes are fantastic, offering a front row experience with both the band and the crowd. Criterion really pulls out all the stops to show why Gimme Shelter is such a landmark documentary. The only imaginable thing that would have made a nice addition would have been a retrospective feature.
The film and its additional features are a must for any music fan, particularly those interested in music’s effects on the time and culture. Gimme Shelter captures the beautiful chaos and the startling savagery of what can be considered the final roar of the 60s counter-culture movement.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A