“They told me, if I could sit on the stage so nobody climbed over me, I could drink beer till the show was over.”
‘Gimme Shelter’, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin in 1970, is a documentary following the Rolling Stones as the prepared for and performed at the infamous Altamont Free Concert in which the Hells Angels murdered a spectator in front of the stage. The film mixes footage from the rock group’s tour of the US prior to the concert, from the Altamont concert itself, and fly-on-the-wall footage showing the behind the scenes wrangling over arrangements for the event. What lifts this beyond merely a promo-documentary, however, are scenes set after Altamont concert showing Mick Jagger watching the footage recorded for the documentary that captured the murder. There is a sense throughout the film or rising tension, and a conflict between the innocence of the Woodstock-style hippies and the brutality of the security around them. The documentary perfectly represents the political shift at the time and the stripping back of the veneer of liberalism that occured in Nixon’s America. The hippies in the crowd are presented as strange and out-of-touch. In one particular moment, the camera is on stage, ostensibly filming Jagger singing, but the focus is on a fan in front of him, his face contorting and spasming with the music. The moment of the murder is the climax of this shift from innocence to cynical reality and is presented in the film in a manner reminiscent of the killing in Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up’: Jagger is shown studying the film, rewinding and pausing it to catch the moment. The music is driving and exciting, but that doesn’t seem to be the real point of the film, instead the music accentuates the building tension and the feeling of being pushed towards a bloody climax. It’s raw, brutal, exciting and captures the instant that the 1960s died.
Would I recommend it? Yes – if you have any interest in the complex shifting of politics and culture in the late 1960s, this provides an excellent summation. I’d watch it in a double bill with ‘Blow-up’.