Gimme Shelter Movie Review
This concert footage is intercut with scenes of the Rolling Stones' lawyer, bespectacled fussbudget Melvin Belli, as he organizes their free concert in California. The locals seem wary of bringing the Rolling Stones to town, along with all those crazy fans: Someone's sure to get hurt. We also catch glimpses of the obviously whacked out Stones on a press junket, oblivious to the manic fans who fervently gather around them.
Welcome to 1969, four months after Woodstock. The Stones are joined by Jefferson Airplane in a free concert at Altamont Speedway. On the long, bleak day, the crowd gathers in hot anticipation, some stripping themselves naked and running through the crowd while others booze and smoke up.
It's the end of the '60s, man, and what an ending! During the performance, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane is knocked out by an angry biker, the crowd is drubbed with pool sticks and chains, and a lone gunman who has Jagger in his sights is cut down by the knife of a Hell's Angel. It's the tragic tale of Altamont, where a member of the Stones' ad hoc security team stabbed a gun-toting fan to death. History has been made, once again, with blood.
Gimme Shelter, filmed by the Maysles Brothers, is a time capsule of the violent climate in 1969, shot over the course of ten days during the Rolling Stones tour. The handheld camera moves around, capturing poorly lit, washed out images of dejected youth, bummed out rock stars and a wild performance. It isn't pretty, all ragged zooms and catch-as-catch-can shots which move from one definitive late '60s image to another - tight bellbottoms and long waves of hair, kissing couples and peace signs, and travelers with all their worldly possessions in their sacks traveling through the good old USA.
Mick Jagger really isn't much of a live performer, overly concerned with his appearance, forcing eccentric ad-libs. However, the crowd adores Mick's fervent energy. Women leap on stage to wrap themselves around him. Oddly enough, it'd all be just a fun (and forgettable) road movie leading up to an aggressive and hip "alternative to Woodstock" were it not for the shots of the Rolling Stones sitting around the editing console watching the aftermath and inevitability of the Altamont tragedy.
When the murder occurs, Jagger rewinds the editing machine and watches it again in grim slow motion, his face reflecting -- what? Relief that he wasn't gunned down in cold blood? A thudding moment of realization that the '60s have gone out with a brutal bang? Whatever it is, the Maysles Brothers are sensible enough to linger on his face while watching the footage, and the grim visages of his Rolling Stones companions, particularly the cartoon-faced Charlie Watts as he smokes a cigarette, eyes filled with emptiness.
The movie lacks focus and feels rough and tumble, hastily thrown together and forcing its "death of the '60s" theme by rushing through the murder finale. They really don't have much footage of its aftermath, except the Stones' dejected faces in the editing room and the hippies leaving the concert. That's the marvel of creatively editing around something the filmmakers hadn't anticipated - using the metaphor of death.
However, there's no denying that as a sign of its times, Gimme Shelter is an indispensable document with uses the popular rock ballads of the Rolling Stones as the pulse for the cheerfully drugged young people and the hostile antics of the bikers, captured en masse on that fatal day by the filmmakers. Songs like "Under My Thumb," "Satisfaction" and, especially, "Sympathy for the Devil" become more than pop and fizz, existing onscreen as cultural milestones and commentary on those watching (and, indeed, those performing).
The best place to end this review lies in describing the quiet melancholy of a single unbroken shot. The Rolling Stones listen to the playback of their slow, dreamy "Wild Horses." They smoke, fiddle with their boots, and sit staring at the walls of the recording studio as the song carries on. Though this happens several days before Altamont, it works as an eerie prediction that something great is coming -- great and terrible and strange, and the Rolling Stones will have no choice but to hurry up and wait.
Scenes like this play out as if Gimme Shelter were a thriller, and the Altamont killing is the ticking time bomb which drives the story forward. It's a movie which merits the attention of a re-release, whether viewed as a history lesson in American culture or as an exercise in slow mounting dread. Mick Jagger never knew what hit him.