After watching Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and given the circumstances surrounding my watching it which have had something of the feel of the end of era, I headed back four years from Bowie’s iconic concert film to another, that also is said to capture a conclusion, the Maysles Brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter.
Famous for capturing on film the Altamont Free Concert of December 1969, Gimme Shelter is more than that. Starting out in New York it offers a glimpse into The Rolling Stones US tour with concert footage from Madison Square Garden and material gathered in the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama where they were seemingly working on their Sticky Fingers album (which was released in 1971).
The sections of the film from MSG are astonishing in their own right, with the crowd packed to the front of the stage and Mick Jagger a bundle of jittery, untamed energy on the surprisingly small stage. It’s like a less studied version of the performer he has become reacting more fluidly to Keith Richard’s guitar and posing and posturing to the crowd like no other.
In these sequences (and throughout the film) Keith is unrecognizable to the man he is now, but his unique guitar work, playing wild and lose with rhythm and drenched in blues, is as characteristic as ever.
A standout in these sequences is the (these day comparatively mild-mannered) drummer, Charlie Watts. He has a look of amazingly understated intensity and his tight playing seems to be what keeps the band on track throughout the six songs we see from the New York show.
Intercut with these sequences (along with a track from Ike and Tina Turner) are shots of the Stones, particularly Jagger and Watts, in the editing room of the film watching and listening back to footage from Altamont and audio of some of the radio broadcast reactions to it. Whether you’re aware of what’s coming or not these instantly bring up a sense of something dark impending, and the inclusion of the Hell’s Angels’ Sonny Barger’s response to events is both fascinating and fairly shocking given what happened.
Along with the Stones we get clips of those trying to organise the free concert as it moves venue from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to one race track and finally to the Altamont Speedway race track, despite preemptive protestation from various neighbouring land owners.
Once the Maysles Brothers and Zwerin have shown this rising tension expertly we arrive, along with the band, at Altamont via helicopter as cars line the narrow, two-lane road to the site for miles as an estimated 300,000 revelers head to the concert.
While the directors show the tension of the event building, they do so in a way unlike many documentary makers as, it seems, they are simply capturing the events rather than setting out with an idea of story – though of course the edit must be designed to tell the story of what they saw. Their method gives a feeling very similar to the Woodstock movie, but, while that feels largely summery, happy and a celebration of music, Altamont is clearly something, in its way, far more sinister.
Accompanied by the music the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane (Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young also played but don’t appear and The Grateful Dead pulled out upon seeing the way the event was going) we see an already awkward event begin to descend into chaos.
Once the Stones take to the stage just after sunset we see the audience in front of the stage erupt into seemingly spontaneous fights with the Hell’s Angels (supposedly providing event security) clashing with (arguable) agitators in the crowd while those who genuinely seem to be there for the music look on distraught.
The style of the filmmakers, simply to record the events, gives the whole thing a feeling that we are watching it happen live (even though it was nearly 50 years ago and clearly edited) and as Jagger’s face shows the realisation that they’ve lost control and that bright lime green suit flashes from the crowd only to be quickly swallowed again by a mass of men in denim and leather, its clear this isn’t really a concert anymore.
This and the following shots of the end of the concert and revelation that the man in green has been killed would have been enough to capture a tragic, chaotic moment, but the directors then cut back to the editing room and we get to see Jagger’s reaction to it all emphasised by a freeze frame as he leaves the room clearly distressed by what he’s seen.
Seeing these events is deeply, deeply, uncomfortable and, to be honest, I’m not even sure the film should have been released given the circumstances. But, what the directors do with the build and coda, which feels like climax of a lo-fi horror movie, is genuinely make this feel like the end of something, the end of an era, so to speak.
Its become cliché to say this documents the day the hippy dream died but, in watching it, there is a genuine sense of that captured in a visceral and vital way juxtaposed with some great, urgent, rhythm and blues music that, in a way, makes the whole thing all the more impactful and gives an amazing context of much of the music, film, writing and art that would follow and mark the move into the more cynical 1970s of fear and loathing.