Gimme Shelter follows The Rolling Stones on their 1969 US tour, catching them at their absolute apex.
Interspersed with the live concert footage we see the negotiations between lawyers and promoters who must find a last-minute alternative venue for a free concert scheduled in San Francisco. They decide on the Altamont Speedway.
All events in the film lead to this event.
Intended to be the West Coast take on Woodstock, Altamont was made possible by the speedway owner offering his venue for free in the hope of generating free publicity.
He got more publicity than he could have imagined.
During the concert, the film crew actually captured a concert attendee being stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels not 30 feet from The Rolling Stones’ performance.
In the spirit of keeping the event free, the promoters allowed members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang to provide ‘security’. They made the equally dubious decision to provide the Angels with all the beer they could drink in lieu of payment.
It kinda defeats the purpose when ‘security’ knocks out the lead singer in mid-performance. This happens to Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane. And when Grace Slick criticises the action, a biker hops on Marty’s mic to argue with her.
Gimme Shelter does feature some big acts, including Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Ike and Tina Turner doing a rendition of the Otis Redding classic I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.
Critics such as Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby derided the film as exploitative. Some charged that the filmmakers – if not complicit in the lethal chaos – were at least exploiting it.
But Gimme Shelter is a well-made documentary that does not interrupt the ambiguity of the event by seeking to resolve it. The film captures that the stabbing victim clearly had drawn a gun. Jagger’s response is hard to discern: On the one hand there is shock and recrimination, and on the other, the very real possibility that the victim could have been him.
This movie is many things; a great rock & roll film, a well-constructed documentary, and a challenging mix of voyeurism and dark fascination. Above all, it is a glimpse at the end of an era.
If Woodstock (1970) makes you nostalgic for a bygone era, Gimme Shelter will remind you why it all had to end.
The Rolling Stones
The Grateful Dead
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Ike and Tina Turner
The Flying Burrito Brothers