Reviewed by: Jim O’Neill
|Featuring:||Melvin Belli, Mick Jagger, The Jefferson Airplane, Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, Mick Taylor, Ike Turner, Tina Turner, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman|
|Director:||The Maysles Brothers, Charlotte Zwerin|
The 1970 film, “Gimme Shelter”, which has been re-released with better sound and extra footage, is one of the seminal films of our times. It holds up better than its sister “rocumentaries”, “Woodstock” and “Monterey Pop” which were released around the same time. Whereas the latter two films celebrated youth culture and romanticized the sixties generation, “Gimme Shelter” looks at the same phenomenon objectively. “Gimme Shelter”’s focus is a free outdoor concert given by the Rolling Stones at the Altamont speedway outside San Francisco in December, 1969. What appears on the screen is not pleasant. The hallowed ideals of the culture of peace and love which encouraged sexual and pharmacological experimentation come crashing down in “Gimme Shelter”. The Woodstock myth, always on shaky ground, lost it’s footing in the face of Altamont. The lessons of Altamont have been borne out each time an attempt is made to recreate the Woodstock festival. We saw how the latest reincarnation in 1999 met with disastrous results. Gimme Shelter’s re-release has come at a good time, but the media’s response has been curious. Perhaps the film critics, most of whom are alumni or direct descendants of the sixties generation see Woodstock as a testament to their belief that the liberal ideas of the sixties do indeed bear sweet fruit. The horrors seen in “Gimme Shelter” will not phase such an ideology. Indeed, many of the critics are declaring that the film makes no greater statement than how promoters and performers should avoid the pitfalls of bad advertising and bad planning. In other words, Altamont was not symbolic of the sixties—not like Woodstock was—rather, it was a kind of public relations bungle that says nothing about the people involved or the time in which it happened. Such rationalization nicely preserves the sixties ideology, but it’s also akin to saying that Victor Frankenstein’s experiments produced a rather unfortunate, but insignificant laboratory error.
The original Woodstock festival managed to keep a lid on a powderkeg thanks to the help of technicians, police, medics and a lot of volunteers. The Woodstock movie did not celebrate them. It celebrated the performers who stayed above the fray, safe inside helicopters or behind a barricaded stage. The film romanticized the performers, equating their talent with character and honor. If there was another side to the stage persona, we didn’t see it in “Woodstock”. In “Gimme Shelter” we do.
There was little support at Altamont, and the lid burst open. Security at the festival was in the hands of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Who actually hired the Angels still remains unclear, but whoever did is guilty of more than just bad planning. Some of the same performers who were glorified in “Woodstock” are seen as remarkably out of touch and frighteningly impotent when it comes to diffusing a bad incident or helping their endangered fans. The rock stars are overcome (some are even beaten) one after the other by the Angels until the Angels take over the whole concert. In Woodstock the promoters bragged that the music never stopped. A few months later at Altamont the promoters, some of whom were the same anointed heads we saw glorified in “Woodstock”, can’t even keep the music going. Every song is interrupted by a spurt of violence in the audience. Grace Slick (of the Jefferson Airplane) and Mick Jagger plead with their audience to stop the violence. Their pleas are useless. And in times of trouble, so are they.
I don’t know if the Maysles brothers intended to make a cautionary tale with religious overtones. I doubt it. But I think “Gimme Shelter” does have conviction. And it has strong religious meaning. Intended or not, the imagery is often biblical or evangelical. The menacing dark-suited forms of the Hell’s Angels reminded me of the devil’s laborers in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” who use sticks (the Angels used pool cues) to herd the damn over the River Styx to Hades. One scene in the film shows an obese naked man, his eyes empty and translucent from a drug haze, moving threateningly through the crowd until the Angels descend upon him and beat him with their cue sticks. Like in the master’s fresco the damned, corpulent from excess, are pulled to the depths while they cover their eyes and surrender to even greater forces of evil.
“Woodstock” tried to be a kind of road movie. It begins with scenes of young people in motion: on foot, on carts, in brightly painted cars moving toward the land of gold sun and blue skies. A Joni Mitchell song is heard on the soundtrack: “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”. The color and the sound have a luscious seductive feel. The opening sequence almost cuddles you in its comforting tone. But the initial sequence quickly gives rise to an adoration of the magnificence of the rock performer. Here the movie stalls and it never really recovers. The music numbers go on interminably. At the end of the movie, as I watched Jimi Hendrix (the last—and the best—performer) playing to a small band of hangers-on who stood amidst the garbage and the wreckage, I couldn’t help but wonder where everyone went. I suppose where they were headed was not important to the filmmakers. Once the stardust-golden love generation had reached its garden there was nowhere left for them to go. Except perhaps the next concert. And the next concert was Altamont.
In “Gimme Shelter” the road continues. The Rolling Stones are on tour in the United States in the fall of 1969. Things have changed a bit from the summer of ’69. Crosby, Stills and Nash in ponchos singing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and Joan Baez in a maternity smock preaching peaceful resistance have given way to Mick Jagger in a black Mephistopheles suit topped with an Uncle Sam hat singing “Street Fighting Man.” The Stones criss-cross the United States playing large stadiums in major cities on their way to Altamont. The climax of the film occurs in the mayhem of Altamont when one of the spectators is stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels. During the stabbing the Stones are on the stage and Jagger is singing “Under My Thumb” (“it’s all right—I say that it’s all right”). The death is caught on film and is rerun in slow motion several times. Jagger doesn’t see the killing from the stage, but he watches it over and over again on a sound stage later on. He has no explanations. No answers. One of the most prolific and listened-to voices of the generation is speechless.
“Gimme Shelter” is an important film. I recommend it to adults who do not mind loud rock music. There is graphic violence, nudity and sexual content, all of which are used not in a gratuitous way, but in a way that reflects truths about what the sixties generation actually stood for, and what the risks are of adhering to its edicts. Most movies (even recent ones such as “A Walk on the Moon” or Television’s “The Sixties”) still romanticize the Woodstock phenomenon and ignore its threatening underbelly. “Gimme Shelter” holds up well because it reveals truths that are too often ignored. The film is a brilliant technical accomplishment because each element in the tour had to have been a surprise: the unpredictable performing schedule, the disastrous events at Altamont, and the shock of catching a murder on film while expecting to photograph a placid, Woodstock-like audience. To put all this together, oftentimes on the spur of the moment, and to compile a work that excels as a concert film and a strong cautionary tale is a remarkable achievement. “Gimme Shelter” may not promote Christian values, but it gives us a good indication of what can happen to a society that abandons such values and celebrates a culture that chips away at the moral order.
A PG rated version is also available.