Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

GIMME SHELTER (1970) * * ¾

This musical documentary concerns the Rolling Stones and their tragic free concert at Altamont Speedway in the hills west of San Francisco on December 6, 1969. Over 300,000 people attended. The event known as "Woodstock West" was all but destroyed by violence that marked the end of the peace and love euphoria of the 1960s. Altamont degenerated into mayhem when drunken Hells Angels, hired to keep order in front of the stage for $500 of beer, beat concertgoers over their heads with leaded pool cues. The violence was capped by the murder of an 18 year old black man, Meredith Hunter. Captured on film, Hunter's murder cemented the festival's reputation as the official end of the 1960s counterculture. Three others also died that day. GIMME SHELTER showed that the counterculture was not going to redeem or change anything, especially human violence.

Hell's Angel: They told me, if I could sit on the stage so nobody climbed over me, I could drink beer till the show was over.

Brothers Albert and David Maysles with co-director Charlotte Zwerin constructed GIMME SHELTER to lead to the murder. They give away the ending at the beginning of the film, and don't adhere precisely to the chronology of events. The Flying Burrito Brothers played after the Jefferson Airplane. But in order to show the mounting tension and violence at the festival, the film puts the Jefferson Airplane's set before the Flying Burrito Brothers. Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin was knocked out by a Hells Angel when he jumped into the crowd to stop a fight. The film makes it appear that the Stones opened their set with "Sympathy for the Devil," which they did not. It also appears that the show concluded after Hunter's stabbing at the end of "Under My Thumb," which it did not. The New York Times, Variety, and Rolling Stone magazine criticized the Stones and the Maysles Brothers for exploiting the murder to their economic advantage. These accusations are as responsible for Altamont's notoriety as the murder itself.

The documentary begins with The Stones doing a bit of dressup spoofery, then cuts to Madison Square Garden for an energetic rendition of "Jumpin Jack Flash", which segues into Charlotte Zwerin's editing suite in London. A bemused Mick Jagger is watching himself on an editing screen. Next Charlie Watts is listening to Sonny Barger make excuses for the Hell's Angels: "I ain't no cop," he snarls, "They were messing with our bikes." Now jump to Jagger, looking very nervous as Barger says Jagger may be fingering the Hells Angels as the perpetrators, but that's not the way he sees it.

GIMME SHELTER depicts some of the Stones' Madison Square Garden concert, later featured on the live album "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert", as well as the photography session for the cover, featuring Charlie Watts and a donkey. It also shows the Stones at work in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, recording "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses". The film also includes footage of Ike and Tina Turner opening for the Stones at their Madison Square Garden concert, with Jagger commenting, "It's nice to have a chick occasionally."

The action then turns to the concert itself at the Altamont Speedway, with security provided by the Hells Angels armed with pool cues. From the moment the Stones arrive at Altamont, we know things are going to turn ugly. In fact, Jagger can't even get from the helicopter to his trailer before he is smacked in the mouth. As the day progresses, with drug-taking and drinking by the Hells Angels and members of the audience, the mood turns very bad. Fights break out during performances by The Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane. Grace Slick pleads with the crowd to settle down. At one point Jefferson Airplane lead singer Marty Balin is knocked out by a Hells Angel. Paul Kantner attempts to confront "the people who hit my lead singer" in response. Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh arrive, but The Grateful Dead opt not to play after learning of the incident with Balin. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young also performed at the concert but are not shown in the movie.

There is a brief exchange between a few members of the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia is offstage talking with another person about the violence transpiring in front of the stage. Weir rushes over with a brief report. Garcia's response is a druggie cliche: "Oh, bummer." To which Weir adds that Hells Angel's beating up musicians "doesn't seem right." In many ways, this movie created the myth of Altamont, just as the music and movie shaped the myth of Woodstock. Even before the violence starts mounting, the film depicts kids who are far from all right.

The night began smoothly with the Flying Burrito Brothers opening for the Rolling Stones and performing the truck-driving classic "Six Days on the Road" and Tina Turner giving a sensually charged performance. But on this particular evening, the Stones made the disastrous decision to hire the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang as bodyguards and bouncers. Halfway through the Stones' act, the Hells Angels stabbed to death one black spectator, and injured several others who were present, including Jefferson Airplane's lead singer Marty Balin.

By the time The Stones hit the stage, it is evening, and the crowd is especially restless. The Stones open with "Jumpin' Jack Flash". They are also shown performing "Sympathy for the Devil" as tension continues to build. It is during the next song, "Under My Thumb", that a member of the audience, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, pulls out a revolver in the course of a melee near the stage, and is stabbed to death by Alan Passaro, a member of the Hells Angels. Mick Jagger is reduced to standing on stage like a frightened child with his finger in his mouth in wake of the violence.

Mick Jagger: Who's fighting and what for?

Baird Bryant, one of the many cameramen at Altamont, caught Meredith Hunter's stabbing on film. The film sequence clearly shows the silhouette of a handgun in Hunter's hand as a member of the Hells Angels enters from the right, grabs and raises the gun hand, turning Hunter around and stabbing him at least twice in the back before pushing the victim off camera. We actually get to see Meredith Hunter being stabbed, zoomed right up close and in slow motion, and unlike the visually degraded Zapruder film, this is shot in glorious 16mm color by a professional cameraman. And it's real. The Maysles used 22 cameramen and 14 Nagra-toting soundmen. Among the camera operators for the Altamont concert was a young George Lucas, who went on to become a successful film director. At the concert his camera jammed after shooting about 100 feet of film, and none of his footage was used in the final cut.

First planned for Golden Gate Park, the free concert was moved to the Sears Point Raceway after its permit was withdrawn. The stage was all but ready at Sears Point when that venue fell through. The deal to perform at Altamont was struck at the last minute, with negotiations that the Maysles reveal to the film audience. In these scenes, the air of desperation to do something that no one can stop is palpable. The final shots of scattering silhouettes are among the most desolate ever put on a movie screen. The dream is over. This picture ends on a despairing note, with the Stones repeatedly watching a film of the murder. Celebrated documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles directed and Haskell Wexler shot the film, with heightened instinct and control. As a result, this film is considered one of the greatest rock documentaries ever made.

The film is named after "Gimme Shelter", the lead track from The Rolling Stones' 1969 album "Let It Bleed". It was screened at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, but wasn't entered into the main competition. This documentary is associated with the Direct Cinema movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Maysles Brothers, who directed it, are strong figures of the era. Direct Cinema revolves around the philosophy of being a "reactive" filmmaker. Rather than investigating a subject matter through such documentary techniques as interviews, reconstruction and voiceover, Direct Cinema simply records events as they unfold naturally and spontaneously--like a fly on the wall.

Much of the film chronicles the behind-the-scenes dealmaking that took place to make the free Altamont concert happen, including much footage of well-known attorney Melvin Belli negotiating by telephone with the management of the Altamont Speedway. The movie also includes a playback of Hells Angels motorcycle gang leader Ralph "Sonny" Barger's famous call-in to radio station KSAN-FM's "day after" program about the concert.

The Songs Performed:

The Rolling Stones

* "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
* "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
* "You Gotta Move"
* "Wild Horses" (in studio at Muscle Shoals)
* "Brown Sugar"
* "Love in Vain"
* "Honky Tonk Women"
* "Street Fighting Man"
* "Sympathy for the Devil"
* "Under My Thumb"
* "Gimme Shelter" (live version, over closing credits)

Ike and Tina Turner: "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (at Madison Square Garden)

Jefferson Airplane: "The Other Side of This Life" (at Altamont)

Flying Burrito Brothers: "Six Days on the Road" (at Altamont)

Unlike C**KSUCKER BLUES (1972), the notorious film of the Stones' 1972 North American tour, GIMME SHELTER reeks of professional technique, clever ideas, and lots of cash. Director/Film Editor Charlotte Zwerin has to be given credit for the film's fascinating structure. She asked members of The Stones to drop round her editing suite and check out the raw footage. They agreed, and cameras were set up to catch their reactions. Suddenly the film changes from a documentary into something doubly voyeuristic. This double removal from the action means the film takes on a timeless feeling, as The Present in the film is forever locked to those moments when The Stones watch the rough cuts and watch The Stones watching the rough cuts. This reveals the story in a normal timeframe, but fragmented into flashbacks. This startling new structure means GIMME SHELTER is not a true documentary, but not really fiction. It's a powerful new combination of reality and fiction, told through action and reaction. This "time bounce" structure also takes advantage of the lack of filmed material Zwerin had to work with. GIMME SHELTER examines the Stones and Altamont with such a cold eye, it seems somehow to be examining itself.

Showing the Stones watching the footage enabled them to deflect charges that they were responsible for the Altamont disaster. "That's bulls**t," Jagger remarks to the onscreen Jagger, who has tried to be charming with a female reporter. Mick has nothing to say as he watches himself tell the media about the free concert, a concert that will show the world a large group of people can get together and behave like idealized hippies.

The cast includes: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, Marty Balin, Sonny Barger, Melvin Belli, Dick Carter, Jack Casady, Mike Clarke, Sam Cutler, Spencer Dryden, Chris Hillman, John Jaymes, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, Pete Kleinow, Bernie Leadon, Gram Parsons, Ronald Schneider, Rock Scully, Grace Slick, Frank Terry, Ike Turner, Tina Turner, Jerry Garcia, Meredith Hunter, Michael Lang, Phil Lesh, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Alan Passaro, Michael Shrieve, Ian Stewart, and Bob Weir. Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin.

There is a lot of music and performing in GIMME SHELTER, but it is not a concert film like WOODSTOCK (1970) which took place four months earlier. GIMME SHELTER was a part of the event it recorded, in fact a commissioned movie. The proceeds were meant to help the Stones pay the costs of the free concert, although they grossed a reported $1.5 million from the other non-free concerts on their tour. Mick Jagger did not attend the London School of Economics for no reason. Cynicism is the pervading force in this 1970 documentary.

The Criterion DVD is overpriced, but you do receive a fair number of extras on this single-sided, double-layered disc. Audio commentary by Albert Maysles (his brother David died in 1987), editor Zwerin, and production collaborator Stanley Goldstein has a wealth of information. For example, Goldstein gives a clear explanation as to how the Hells Angels ended up as the security team, and he debunks myths about why the band went on late. Maysles communicates how he views film composition and the images he and his team managed to capture here. Zwerin offers perhaps the most emotional and insightful dialogue about GIMME SHELTER as she explains how she painstakingly put the film together. All three also offer a great deal of detailed technical information. A brief restoration demonstration offers before-and-after examples of the image, color, and sound restoration used to create this beautiful high-definition release.

There is a full recording of the December 7, 1969 post-Altamont KSAN Radio program with a new introduction by former DJ Stefan Ponek, and an "Altamont Stills Gallery" with photos by Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower. Also there is never before seen footage of the Madison Square Garden show that includes Stones covers of "Little Queenie" and "Prodigal Son," along with backstage outtakes. Tina Turner and Jagger try to talk while Ike seems to be purposely playing his guitar so loud that they can barely hear each other. The original and re-release trailers are included as well as a 44-page booklet with essays by Jagger's former assistant Georgia Bergman, music writers Michael Lydon and Stanley Booth, ex-Oakland Hell's Angels Chapter Head Sonny Barger, and film critics Amy Taubin and Godfrey Cheshire. This film is presented in the original full-frame 1.33:1 and the audio restoration is so good that, in the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, it sounds like it was recorded yesterday and not on equipment from decades ago.

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