Gimme Shelter Reviews
1970's "Gimme Shelter," a documentary chronicling the final few weeks of the Stones's 1969 US Tour (and, more infamously, their cataclysmic Altamont Free Concert that resulted in the deaths of four people), is a powerful inside look into the crumbling in of the hopeful days of the 60s - here do we see a band who once thrived on carefree fun suffering from plights of ennui, and here do we see audiences who'd rather cause a commotion than be the people they once were when America finally seemed to be a promising place in which to live.
It wasn't initially planned to be the cultural summarizer that it has grown to become over the years. Originally were directors Charlotte Zwerin and Albert and David Maysles hired by the band to document their antics a la Dylan's "Don't Look Back" (1967) or Elvis's "That's the Way It Is" (1970), with "Gimme Shelter" planned to be used as an advertising tool of sorts. (They had already flirted with documentary filmmaking through 1968's "Sympathy for the Devil," which was directed by Jean-Luc Godard and shined a light on the iconic song's recording.)
But from the start is it clear that something is amiss, that tension is thickly spread and urgently needs to be broken. From the footage of the stretch of '69 shows does everything seem perfectly fine, cameos from Ike and Tina Turner, for instance, reassuring us that all in store is a conventional tour we'd perhaps wish we'd been able to attend. But when the planning for the free show is underway - the size of the area is massive, and the Hells Angels are hired for security - we can feel an inexplicable, but very much there, foreboding that almost promises future artistic dystopia.
From the assault on one of opening band Jefferson Airplane's members within the first few minutes into the show to the brief but chilling flash of a knife during the Stones's first song does it become clear that "Gimme Shelter" is hardly a rollicking rockumentary a la "Stop Making Sense" (1984) or "Truth or Dare" (1991) but a cultural artifact hardly about its focal musicians at all. It's about the almost startlingly quick shift in the collective mood of a society switching decades and switching ideals - the documentary is merely a small scale exemplification of the widespread phenomenon.
In watching was I taken aback - "Gimme Shelter," purposely filmed without documentary staples (like talking heads, romanticized voiceovers, and cobbled together sequencing), is so in the moment, so perturbingly real that I found myself feeling as though I were definitively part of the year in which the movie was filmed, able to empathize both with the reality of the general population and with the reality of the prosperous Stones. In watching could I feel the disaffection of the crowd, the horror of musicians inadvertently responsible for bringing together uncontrollable chaos. "Gimme Shelter" is so mightily effective because it's more than just a concert movie; it's also an unaffected record lucky to have been filmed. One wishes it were longer - it's more eye-opening than any fictional account of its decade.
A documentary on the Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour and the tragic events that concluded it. We see footage of their concerts and of them making the Sticky Fingers album in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. However, the main focus of the film is on one concert - Altamont Speedway, outside San Francisco, 6 December 1969. A free concert, it is the Stones' idea and it was meant to be the Woodstock of the West (Woodstock having occurred four months earlier). Other bands performing included Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Santana. However, it is far from being the peace and love of Woodstock. Part of the problem is that the Stones hired the Hells Angels as security. The other problem was that a large portion of the crowd were high on drugs. Friction ensues. During the Stones' set, Meredith Hunter, high on methamphetamine and armed with a gun, makes a lunge for the stage and is stabbed to death by the Hells Angels. The peace and love era of the 60s was over.
A very well made documentary, especially considering the limited material the producers had to work with. We don't just see the concert footage but also the Stones and the film makers sitting in the studio going through the footage. We see their thoughts and reactions to what occurred. Some of this feels contrived or staged but for the most part it provides a narrative to what happened. Otherwise we would just have concert footage with no explanation of what to expect or what was going on.
The fact that the Meredith Hunter incident is mentioned early on in the film helps the tension in the movie. You know something is going to happen, but you don't know when. You see the friction preceding the incident and there's now an inevitability to it all. It plays out like a thriller, ultimately.
The camera work at the concert contributes too. The roughness of the shots adds an edginess and feeling of anarchy to the proceedings.
The footage preceding the Altamont concert is quite interesting too. We see some Stones concert footage from other concerts, and get complete songs from these concerts. These are probably the only enjoyable live music moments from the movie, as the Altamont songs are too soaked in tension and the threat of violence to fully enjoy.
The Sticky Fingers footage is great too, seeing a classic album being formed. In the movie it only lasts a few minutes but it deserves a documentary of its own. The highlight was seeing Jagger and Richards listening to an early take of Brown Sugar. Quite illuminating to see artists' views of their own work.
Overall, one of music's most infamous incidents, quite accurately captured.
Having seen it, now, I can see how silly waiting has been. I doubt there's much I could add that hasn't already been said at this point, other than to say I thought it was fascinating and incredibly well done. It also reminded me of how fantastic some of their songs were. And it made me wish they'd captured all of Ike and Tina's performance because that was mesmerizing.