Classic Documentary: The Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter

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“It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society, which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.”
– Mick Jagger

“Altamont was supposed to be like Woodstock, only groovier, and their movie would be groovier still. Instead, the Stones got what no one had bargained for: a terrifying snapshot of the sudden collapse of the sixties.”
– Godfrey Cheshire

Gimme Shelter is a 1970 documentary film directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin chronicling the last weeks of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour which culminated in the disastrous Altamont Free Concert. The film is named after “Gimme Shelter”, the lead track from the group’s 1969 album Let It Bleed. The film was screened at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition. It is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, not just in the music documentary genre. The last third of the picture is painful to watch but difficult to turn away from.

Gimme Shelter (full documentary/concert movie):

The Maysles brothers filmed the first concert of the tour at Madison Square Garden in New York City. After the concert, the Maysles brothers asked the Rolling Stones if they could film them on tour, and the band agreed.

Much of the film chronicles the behind-the-scenes dealmaking that took place to make the free Altamont concert happen, including much footage of well-known attorney Melvin Belli negotiating by telephone with the management of the Altamont Speedway. The movie also includes a playback of Hells Angels leader Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s famous call-in to radio station KSAN-FM’s “day after” program about the concert, wherein he recalls, “They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over.”
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The action then turns on the 1969 concert itself at the Altamont Speedway, the security for which was provided by the Hells Angels (armed with pool cues). As the day progresses, with drug-taking and drinking by the Angels and members of the audience, the mood turns ugly. Fights break out during performances by The Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane;Grace Slick pleads with the crowd to settle down. When Mick Jagger arrives to the grounds via helicopter, he is punched in the face by an unruly fan while making his way to his trailer.

By the time The Stones hit the stage, it was evening, and the crowd was especially restless. The Stones opened with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and are also shown performing “Sympathy for the Devil”, as the tension continues to build. It is during the next song, “Under My Thumb”, that a member of the audience, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, attempted, with other crowd members, to force his way onto the stage, and as a result is struck by the Hells Angels members guarding the band. He is then seen to draw a revolver before being subdued by Hells Angel Alan Passaro, and is killed by at least six stab wounds.

Baird Bryant, one of the many cameramen in the film, caught Hunter’s stabbing on film. The film sequence clearly shows the silhouette of a handgun in Hunter’s hand against the dress of his girlfriend, Patty Bredahoff, as Passaro enters from the right, grabs and raises the gun hand, turns Hunter around, and stabs him at least twice in the back before pushing Hunter off camera.

“What Gimme Shelter, fine as it is, does not show is what happened next. We didn’t know whether Hunter had been killed, wounded, or what, but the mood seemed to change; it was as if the atmosphere had been purged. The Stones did “Under My Thumb” with no interruptions; then, at Mick Taylor’s request, “Brown Sugar,” for the first time on any stage. (They’d just written and recorded it in Muscle Shoals a few days before.) Except for a brief problem with a naked fat girl who tried to climb onstage during “Live with Me,” there were no more violent incidents. The Stones did a half dozen more songs, playing as well as or better than I’d ever heard them—playing, under the circumstances, like heroes.

Then we ran for our lives. Stu handed me Keith’s guitar and told me the station wagons to take us to the helicopter would be at the top of the hill, straight back and up to the left. All of us, the Stones, Jo, Ronnie, Michelle, Gram, and I, stumbled through the blackness over the dead grass and dusty clay. There was a hurricane fence at the top of the hill, but we went through a hole in it. There were no station wagons there, just a car and an ambulance. We piled into them and they took us to the helicopter. Gram and I were the last on board; the last thing you see in the film before the copter door closes is the seat of my Levi’s.”
– Stanley Booth

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Songs:

The Rolling Stones
  • “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
  • “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
  • “You Gotta Move”
  • “Wild Horses” (in studio at Muscle Shoals)
  • “Brown Sugar”
  • “Love in Vain”
  • “Honky Tonk Women”
  • “Street Fighting Man”
  • “Sympathy for the Devil”
  • “Under My Thumb”
  • “Gimme Shelter” (live version, over closing credits)
Ike and Tina Turner
  • “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (at Madison Square Garden)
Jefferson Airplane
  • “The Other Side of This Life” (at Altamont)
Flying Burrito Brothers
  • “Six Days on the Road” (at Altamont)

– Hallgeir

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