The Rolling Stones near the end of 1969 were enjoying a highly successful tour of North America, and to end it they decided to take a leaf from the then-recent Woodstock concert and arrange a free festival with other bands and themselves as the headline act. A nice idea, one would have thought, but in execution it didn't turn out very well at all: a disaster, in fact. We see Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the editing room reviewing the footage that was shot to document the event as they try to make sense of what has happened, but even if they didn't know it then, this was the death knell for the peace and love generation...
The documentary first started out as a record of that tour, and a good portion of the film is given over to the Rolling Stones performing in New York, and although they sound all right, the directors have an exasperating love of the closeup, specifically the closeup on Mick Jagger. You rarely get to see any of the other band members, so it looks like the Jagger and his backing band show. Better are the shots of the audience, the public who will become more significant to the story as it draws on, as at those initial concert scenes they are ecstatic to be there.
So far so good, but the Maysles brothers and co-director (and editor) Charlotte Zwerin are keen to show the encroaching corporate nature of the business judging by how much is given over to lawyer Melvin Belli as he sets up the free event in San Francisco. The location has to be changed, but the deals are in place and there's never any doubt this juggernaut is going to roll on, at Altamont as it turns out, and the publicity machine goes into action to attract what the organisers hoped would be a crowd of peace-loving, law-abiding flower children.
And they did turn up, but where the organisation seems to have gone wrong is by hiring the decidedly not-so-peace-loving Hell's Angels to take care of the security in return for all the beer they could drink. So in the second half of the film, a feeling of dread builds and does not dissipate as we see the audience arrive, settle down and begin to antagonise each other. Many are the clips of the hippies flashing peace signs, smoking joints and looking beatific, which is gradually replaced by them getting smashed over the head with pool cues and crying. Not even the bands are immune, as it transpires, when early on Marty Balin from Jefferson Airplane tries to break up a fight while onstage and ends up beaten unconscious for his pains.
It would be funny if it weren't so tragic: the constant attempts to appeal to the brawlers' better nature, to bring everyone together in the spirit of peace and love in the face of naked aggression. By the time the Stones take the stage on that chilly winter's night, the mood is inescapably bleak, and no matter how many times Jagger pleads for calm from the stage is there any question that things will fail to improve. The most notorious part of Gimme Shelter is the ending where Jagger and Charlie Watts are shown the murder that occurred mere feet away from the band. Was the man with the gun wielding it for self defence? Or was he determined to do the unthinkable and kill Jagger? You can see these questions disturbing the singer as he watches, perhaps realising that the free Altamont concert was the coffin lid nailed down onto the impossible hippy dream of the sixties. The final freeze frame shows a man truly disillusioned, echoing the audience of that fateful day and the generation who came of age back then.
American documentary maker, usually in collaboration with his brother David. Salesman was their first real cult film, followed by the notorious concert movie Gimme Shelter and the voyeuristic Grey Gardens. After David's death, Albert continued to work in the format.
David Maysles (1931 - 1987)
American documentary maker, usually in collaboration with his brother Albert. Salesman was their first real cult film, followed by the notorious concert movie Gimme Shelter and the voyeuristic Grey Gardens.