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GIMME SHELTER
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  The Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane
Directors:  David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Audio:  DTS HD
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  December 1, 2009

"Please allow me to introduce myself..."

Film ****

Gimme Shelter is quite possibly the most important rock and roll film ever made, not only because it captured a legendary rock band at their performing apex, but because it unwittingly documented one of popular music’s most stunning and horrific events.

When co-directors David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin joined the Rolling Stones near the end of their 1969 tour of the United States, they assumed they’d be preserving some great music and shows for posterity.  But it all changed when a poorly planned and shoddily executed free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco, initially dubbed “Woodstock West”, became a violent melee between some hippie concert goers and the Hell’s Angels.  The infamous biker club was supposedly there for security, and the film never makes it quite clear whose brilliant idea that was.  History and myth have attributed their hiring to the Stones’ themselves.  They’ve denied it. 

But no matter how it happened, the end result was a dangerous mix of free spirited ‘flower children’ and big, burly, violent bikers.  Both sides had spent a good day or so indulging in booze and drugs.  Many indications early on seemed to foreshadow the tragic events of that evening.  Fights were breaking out left and right.  The Angels, equipped with weighted pool cues, were bashing other concert goers.  Bands that took the stage earlier were witnessing a gradually increasing chaos, and tried in vain to encourage calmness in the crowd.  “Easy, easy, easy,” Grace Slick pleads over and over.  Her band, Jefferson Airplane, are at a loss at whether to continue the show.  A match of words erupts between Paul Kantner and one of the Angels over the fact that a member had punched singer Marty Balin in the face while on stage.  To witness these events unfurling is like seeing a train wreck about to happen in slow motion…there is a feeling of absolute despair, unease, and helplessness.

By the time the Stones take the stage, we can’t help but wonder, how did it all go so wrong so quickly?  At the beginning of the movie, we’re treated to several dynamite concert clips from their Madison Square Garden show, just ten days earlier.  The music was great, and the band members, particularly front man Mick Jagger, seemed to be having the time of their lives.  The atmosphere was electric.  It was rock and roll at its best.  And we see some of this footage film-within-a-film style, as the directors play it for Mick and drummer Charlie Watts on a small movieola.  The mood is somber.  Soon, the two musicians are listening to a radio broadcast about the Altamont concert, which obviously had just taken place.  There were four births, they reported, along with four deaths.  Suddenly, we realize we’re watching the footage under the sober spell of those tragic events, alongside two band members who where there in the middle of it, and obviously still in a state of shock over them.

The entire second half of the film deals entirely with the Altamont concert, and we finally begin to see what had only been alluded to thus far in the movie.  People had begun showing up a full day ahead of time.  Drugs were plentiful.  The mood, even early on, didn’t seem to be the one of love and acceptance Woodstock had been noted for.  It was more a mood of chaos and disintegration.  It didn’t help that the big San Francisco event was supposed to have taken place at Golden Gate park…a much better venue for a large scale free concert, with better access, and where officials were more accustomed to maintaining security.  It had fallen through, leaving the band scrounging for another place to play.  Altamont Speedway was offered, but there were problems.  Could it be secured?  Could it conceivably host several hundred thousand concert goers?  With parking for only about 12,000 being only one of the space problems, could it possibly be pulled off?

Maybe it was all too much too soon.  Dick Carter, who ran the speedway, initially kept trying to emphasize “Dick Carter’s Altamont Speedway” in the publicity.  The concert may have been a coup for him, but by the time it ended, he probably wasn’t as enthused anymore to have his name associated with the event.

As the Stones fire up “Sympathy for the Devil”, the mayhem beings.  The crowd is right up against the stage, which is hardly high enough by today’s standards.  Fans begin to rush up on stage as the band plays.  They stop.  Mick, used to firing up large audiences, is forced to try and calm everybody down.  He asks for the fighting to stop.  The band tries to play again.  The cameras capture haunting images from the crowds:  swinging sticks, pushing, shoving, people being dragged to the ground, concert goers in tears.  Something dreadful has already happened:  news is whispered into Mick’s ear while the band plays.  He asks for a doctor to help out and tend to a situation we haven’t witnessed.

It all culminates in one of the gravest images ever associated with rock and roll, captured quite by accident or by instinct by cameraman Albert Maysles from the stage.  An 18 year old black male, involved in some kind of scuffle with a Hell’s Angel, pulls out a gun.  The bikers grab him and push him out of frame to the left, but not before we clearly see on of the Angels stabbing him in the back.  All of this occurred within a few yards from the band as they played “Under My Thumb”.  Later, we see the aftermath.  A girlfriend is sobbing as someone comforts her, assuring her the man isn’t dead, though we can see his covered body being loaded up onto a chopper.  And Mick and Charlie, in a small film studio, watch soberly as the directors calmly play the footage back for them (and us).  Frames are frozen, film creeps along at a painfully deliberate pace, and there is no denying what we see:  a man being murdered, whose death was caught accidentally and permanently on film. 

The backlash was instantaneous and vigorous.  The most visible target for blame was the Stones themselves, although true history and this film have demonstrated that, like with the Titanic, there was plenty of blame to go around.  Mick Jagger instantly became the devil incarnate…even inspiring (some say) the bitter line in Don McLean’s “American Pie” about ‘Satan laughing with delight’.  It wasn’t really the beginning of troubles for rock and roll…and it certainly wasn’t the end of them.  Still, whenever a violent act erupts at a concert, which sadly still happens and at seemingly increasing rates of occurrence, one can’t help but think back to Altamont Speedway, where the world got its first glimpse of violent mayhem turning tragic as the music played on.

Some have pointed to Gimme Shelter as a major turning point in rock and roll, and in pop culture in general.  Some have said that what was documented in the movie was not music, but a point in history where innocence was lost and attitudes would forever change.  You could also say that about the Zapruder film, another piece of cinema that accidentally became the documentary of a murder, and also one that has been slowed, frozen, blown up and examined frame by frame over the years in an insanely meticulous fashion, as though somewhere between the sprocket holes we could find our innocence again.

Video ***1/2

Criterion, who was instrumental in the restoration of this film for its theatrical re-release in 2000, deserves praise for a job well done in rolling out this movie in high definition.  Those who have seen Gimme Shelter only on previous home video releases, even the studio's remarkable prior DVD release, are in for a treat.  Using the best available source materials, cleaning them up, reducing the grain and bringing back the brightness to washed out coloring, the visual results are spectacular.  Images are clean and clear throughout, and the colors are generally amazing, with remarkable detail.  This new print is as close to immaculate as a 40 year old film can get:  not much at all in the way of scratches, spots, or dirt specks. 

There are a lot of shots where foreground subjects are well lit against a backdrop of black, and those would have been distracting had there been the normal debris and aging artifacts associated with a film this old.  The blacks are deep and true, with no distortions or evidence of compression, and lighter images play against them with excellent balance and contrast.  This version, which also features a few clips restored after having originally been trimmed for a PG rating, is the version of Gimme Shelter for all posterity.

Audio ***1/2

The only aspect that's as impressive as the video is the new DTS HD mix for the film.  This uncompressed track gives the bass more boom than ever in the big concert scenes.  The Stones' music sounds crisp and sharp and clear...more details than you could probably hear in the din of a real live concert.  The dynamic range is quite strong, as the thunder of the rock music balances nicely against the more quiet and still moments.  The rear stages bring the concert and natural reverb to light, while the subwoofer really delivers the band's famous rhythm section sound with punch and power.

Features ****

This amazing Blu-ray from Criterion is loaded to the gills.  For starters, there some very cool deleted scenes:  one involving the studio mixing of the song “Little Queenie”, followed by love performances of that song, “Oh Carol” and “Prodigal Son”, plus some backstage footage of Mick with Ike and Tina Turner, where Ike lets Mick jam on his guitar a little bit.  There is a full length commentary by co-directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin with collaborator Stanley Goldstein (recorded separately but edited together), featuring a lot of good information about the evolution of the project and how this became one of the few Rolling Stones’ planned concert films to actually make it into release. 

There are also a number of excerpts from the KSAN radio broadcast after the Altamont concert, including listener call-ins and one by then head of Oakland’s Hell’s Angels Sonny Barger.  There is an amazing stills gallery of photos from the concert, which demonstrate its unraveling.  There are also two trailers and a typically solid Criterion booklet filled with terrific essays, reviews and remembrances of the film and the events captured in it. 

Summary:

Gimme Shelter is not just another concert film…in fact, I don’t think you have to be a big fan of the Rolling Stones to appreciate it.  It’s a powerful, sober look at what was a, if not necessarily THE, turning point in rock and roll history…an unflinching look at an infamous moment in pop culture where a free concert turned violent with tragic results.  It’s mesmerizing and haunting, filled with great music and unforgettable images.  Criterion has scored once again with a remarkable Blu-ray presentation of a cinematic classic, and fans of film and music are the all-out winners here.

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