“Like lemmings to the sea”
And to think they only wanted to follow The Rolling Stones around America on tour. I wonder what Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin hoped to find in the edit via their “reactive” filmmaking philosophy because it surely wasn’t what resulted. Who could have known how dangerous things would turn at a free concert meant to cap a successful tour? What was rousing performances, candid behind-the-scenes moments, and the hectic craziness of organizing a massive show on the fly ultimately became a document of horror as hippie culture clashed with biker culture for an infamous night of inexcusable violence. The chaos escalated to such a fever pitch that The Grateful Dead arrived yet refused to go on. The Stones tried to suppress the storm, but even they couldn’t control 300,000-plus revelers ready to pop.
Gimme Shelter starts with rock and roll fun as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays onstage as cuts to footage of drummer Charlie Watts and a donkey alongside the rest of the band interjects. It’s like any other concert documentary you can think of—introducing us to the players and sounds before slowing down to interviews or off-stage conversations. The next scene, however, changes the formula by moving to the edit bay as the filmmakers show Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Watts, Mick Taylor, and Bill Wyman what they have. Watts is mostly contemplative and engrossed by the footage while Jagger cringes or laughs at himself along with whatever he’s been caught saying. News reports of a stabbing death and the Hell’s Angels’ involvement play before Angels leader Sonny Barger explains on the radio how disrespectful people “get got”.
It’s a great storytelling device that prepares us for what’s to come before rewinding a bit to show the journey. More live songs like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” play; a respite at Muscle Shoals pumps “Wild Horses” into our ears while Richards lies down lip-synching Jagger’s words; and attorney Melvin Belli does his best to infuse some levity into his dealings with prospective hosts for the free concert capper after two venues back out. There’s legitimate intrigue as the story unfolds and the day approaches, but the Maysles brothers and Zwerin knew they couldn’t have the first half of a concert doc be people talking in closed rooms. The sprinkling in of songs is necessary to keep us engaged in the music because that’s a main reason audiences have come. It eases us into the tragedy.
After all, The Stones are playing venues with no problems whatsoever. They don’t fear the odd fan climbing onstage to touch them before security picks each up to remove them. The music plays on while kids run about and no one is any worse for wear. We even get to see a little of Tina Turner‘s highly sexualized rendition of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” if only to give context to a flippant remark by Jagger in the edit bay saying, “It’s nice to have a chick occasionally.” A moment like this is a great precursor to the reactions yet to come as the Altamont Free Concert unravels before them. The film itself becomes simultaneously about the band watching what happens as we do. And they’re as uncomfortable and horrified as us.
It’s at this point where the movie turns from centering on The Stones to the event itself. The Brits aren’t even at the venue when we start to see the mass of humanity wedged together while cars are parked on the side of the road for miles and miles. Instead it is the organizers trying to get kids off the scaffolding, naked and high audience members running wild, and the random victim of a Hell’s Angels pool cue to the head getting bandaged up at a medical station. When The Flying Burrito Boys begin their set, fights start to break out to the point where the music stops. Things quiet and Jefferson Airplane replaces them to even more insanity as an Angel knocks lead singer Marty Balin out cold. Now the Angels really rile up.
The cameramen start to focus more on the bikers and crowd knowing things are spiraling out of control. You can’t blame them because we can’t stop watching and hypothesizing about what might unfold as a result. There are the iconic moments of a larger woman sans clothes rushing the stage with determination, bowling over all in her path. There’s the dude tripping onstage maybe three feet from Jagger as though he’s being possessed by the devil before an Angel shoves him off. We even see young Meredith Hunter and his girlfriend Patty Bredahoff milling about before the scuffle towards the end pushes them off-screen. I can’t even imagine the filmmakers’ reaction after so much time away while the film developed, seeing Baird Bryant‘s footage and realizing he caught the moment of Hunter’s death.
What I really enjoyed beyond this showcase at Altamont is how Gimme Shelter puts The Stones front and center without censoring their reactions. Jagger comes off like the prima donna he is, Richards is often just staring with a cigarette in his mouth, and Watts appears to be the one feeling everything empathetically. Watts is the one who posits the question, “Do you remember it?” It’s as though everyone else wants to forget whereas he struggles to recall whether or not they could have prevented what occurred. Ultimately no one knows if the carnage could have been avoided because stopping the set short at “Sympathy for the Devil” might have ensured more rioting by those angry at the few who ruined their night. Continuing to play was probably the best and only thing they could have done.