A Storm Is Threat’ning: Perspectives on The Rolling Stones and ‘Gimme Shelter’

Gimme Shelter Essay - 1970 Documentary Film

A few days after the tragic death of Brian Jones, the recently ousted founder of The Rolling Stones, the band put on a poignant memorial performance in London’s Hyde Park. As it happened on that July day in 1969, an English branch of the Hell’s Angels served as security for the show. Despite their moniker, though, they, like the concert itself, were rather tame. Five months later, on December 6, the Stones again offered up a free performance, this time on a considerably larger scale, this time at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco, and this time enlisting the California arm of the Hell’s Angels. This was a different story. Before this day was over, the event, which was optimistically, perhaps naively dubbed “Woodstock West,” also included four births and four deaths, including one homicide.

Sam Cutler, former Rolling Stones tour manager, utters the first lines of Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary about this Altamont show and the events leading up to it. “Everybody seems to be ready,” he says to an audibly enthused New York City crowd. “Are you ready?” In hindsight — and this is likely why directors Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin opened with it — this brief phrase would prove an ironic primer considering what takes place over the course of the film’s succeeding 91 minutes. Could anyone have really been ready for what Gimme Shelter lays bare? From the filmmakers to the musicians to those preparing or attending the concert, could anyone have anticipated the horrific tragedy that would mar this one fateful evening? Could anyone have foreseen how the event would define the ending of an era and upend what was an otherwise accomplished musical showcase?

In quintessential Direct Cinema style — an innovative, sometimes jarring, and often revelatory formal outgrowth of the French concept of cinema vérité — Gimme Shelter charts in spontaneous and riveting fashion the final days of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 United States tour, concluding with the Altamont performance. The Maysles brothers and Zwerin weave together passages detailing the show’s formulation and its execution, scenes from a Stones recording session at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, glimpses of a photo shoot for the cover of their 1969 live album, “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” and numbers from their Thanksgiving weekend stop in New York. Finally, crucially, there are scenes of self-reflective, post-Altamont evaluation, as listeners and eye-witnesses call into local radio station KSAN to tell their side of the story (including Hell’s Angel Ralph “Sonny” Barger, who is none too happy about the bum rap his gang received), while The Rolling Stones’ iconic front man, Mick Jagger, watches a playback of what transpired on a flatbed editing table. Essentially viewing Gimme Shelter like the audience, it’s a meta-moment of instantaneous commentary, if not in Jagger’s literal words at least in his lucid expressions and his composure in the face of what he hath wrought.

But it’s not that simple. As much as some tried to pin what happened at Altamont solely on The Rolling Stones, or the combustible climate they supposedly helped stoke, there was more at play than what Jagger, drummer Charlie Watts and guitarists Keith Richards (erroneously billed as Keith Richard), Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman could have ever manufactured. From the very beginning of Gimme Shelter, particularly if one knows the primary subject of the film (and who watching wouldn’t?), there is an overriding air of melancholy, a sense of finality, of sadness, of dreadful inevitability. This was, after all, the end of a decade rife with assassinations, riots, protests, a brutal, tremendously controversial war, and just a few months prior, the public emergence of Charles Manson, whose deranged followers had committed nine murders in the span of mere weeks. Whatever the 1960s were at one point — or whatever they could have been — those times were changing.

No, those times had changed.

The violence that occurs later in Gimme Shelter appears emphatically fated. As the film and its central figures look back in a pose aptly compared to a postmortem, the Altamont concert is shown to swell and escalate, fermenting a poisoned cocktail of drugs, disharmony, mismanagement, unchecked enthusiasm and an incendiary national character. Indeed, no sooner have the Stones arrived on site than Jagger is himself assailed by one young fan (though “fan” may not be the correct term, as he yelled out “I hate you” and hit the singer in the face), while another overzealous admirer clamors at Jagger’s trailer pleading, “Oh Micky, Micky, Micky, Micky,” begging for the star’s reappearance. The day steadily descends into a wild, riotous time, but not in the good way organizers had imagined. You can feel it: there’s a tension in the film’s introductory sequences that shouldn’t be there, an anxiety that mocks any preconceived notions of peace and love. People hang recklessly on the scaffolding, there seems to be one heated exchange after another, and the instability is only exacerbated by the presence of the Hell’s Angels, who start hassling the rowdy, if largely harmless, crowd. To this, it must be said Gimme Shelter tends to present the Angels as inherent, generalized villains of the story, which may not have been entirely the case, at least not to start; during one disruptive flash toward the end of the film, Richards contemptuously chides one Angel, but Watts acknowledges some were quite nice and indeed helpful with crowd control.

In any event, the pandemonium doesn’t get any better when the musicians take the stage. Early on, fights interrupt a set by Jefferson Airplane. Singer Marty Balin is assaulted by a Hell’s Angel whom guitarist Paul Kantner calls out with a sardonic accusation, and singer Grace Slick, in her inimitable intonation, pleads with the crowd to take it easy and be quiet. “Both sides are fucking up temporarily,” she remarks, “let’s not keep fucking up!” The Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh arrive at Altamont but choose not to perform after Santana drummer Michael Shrieve tells them of the Balin incident (they also didn’t want to further delay the appearance of the Stones that evening). The whole scene, Shrieve sums up rather well in archetypal late-60s style, is “really weird.”

And then, a few hours later, The Rolling Stones start playing “Sympathy for the Devil,” the opening track of their 1968 album Beggars Banquet. What could possibly go wrong during that song?

Again, though, like much else regarding Gimme Shelter — from its fundamental historical context to its multifaceted, signified content — it isn’t that straightforward. There is some liberty taken in the presentation of the Stones’ performance, for instance, benefitting from the connotations of this song in particular and its rebellious undertones. “We always have something very funny happen when we start that number,” states Jagger, calling attention to the tune’s defiant subject matter, playing off its wicked vanity and, in effect, discounting the day’s gestating contention, which had been mounting before they ever started playing. After one interruption, the Stones start up and are again cut off. Jagger attempts to settle the crowd, pleading in a still sing-songy voice (genuinely concerned or still in character?): “Just be cool down in front, don’t push around.” It seems a motorcycle near the stage suffered some sort of small explosion, spewing swirling smoke into the already hot-blooded fracas, opening up a space for confusion, obscured vehemence and assumed or actual threat. The stage-bound cameras struggle to make sense of the madness, to determine in real-time what went wrong and where. It’s violent in any case and Jagger tries to rein it in if not stop it altogether. “Who’s fighting and what for?” he inquires. There’s a lull and the singing continues. Captured in one masterfully fortunate shot (of which Gimme Shelter has many), one Angel looks on at Jagger with what could only be called disdainful bewilderment. More words of caution follow. Jagger even asks everyone to just sit down. Something’s happening. The Stones turn to “Under My Thumb,” which, while misogynistic to its core, isn’t exactly the rousing anthem of “Sympathy for the Devil.” But it doesn’t matter. As the song winds down, there is another clash. For whatever reason (Barger suggests someone struck one or more of the Angels’ bikes), Meredith Hunter, age 18, draws a revolver, clearly seen in Gimme Shelter against the crocheted vest of his girlfriend, Patty Bredehoft. He is then attacked by Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, who proceeds to fatally stab the young man at least six times.

With its cogent editing, the manner in which the Maysles and Zwerin coalesce the varied storylines before this abominable slaying, Gimme Shelter’s assembly is exceptionally compelling. As earlier events proceed beyond the music, there is a pronounced narrative unfolding against the aforementioned sense of looming calamity, a consequential chronology that couldn’t have been fully forecast but now appears, in compiled cinematic form, inexorable. One sees, for example, a fascinating, behind-the-scenes depiction of the logistical, political and bureaucratic maneuverings of those involved in the tour’s conclusion, as they attempt to get everything in order after prior venue considerations fell through and time grows tight. Holding court in his insanely adorned office, Melvin Belli, The Rolling Stones’ lawyer (who also defended Jack Ruby of all people), wheels and deals with Dick Carter, owner of the Altamont Speedway. Others nearby grapple with the scope of the Stones’ popular appeal and the likely crowd they can draw. “You have no idea what goes on here,” says one suited gentleman, who refers to the fans trekking cross-country as being like “lemmings to the sea” (estimates say around 300,000 people did flock to the site, clearly more than these men projected). And somewhere along the lines, it was decided to recruit the Hell’s Angels as security, basically working for beer (ironically, that decision was based on the recommendation of The Grateful Dead). Isolated in terms of visual presentation and cultural compass, driven by publicity and prestige and underestimating the prospects for disorder and even danger, these men are understandably manic, given what is on the line with the concert, but they’re also shown to be decidedly cavalier. Gimme Shelter’s disjointed yet effective timeline advances the perception of an impulsive production from the start, and the (re)arrangement of footage is illustrative of this managerial mishmash.

As author Stanley Booth observes, “It matters that the impression the film gives — Meredith Hunter pulled a gun, got offed, and everybody split — is not what happened at all.” As fine as Gimme Shelter is, he adds, it does not show what happened after the stabbing. “We didn’t know whether Hunter had been killed, wounded, or what, but the mood seemed to change; it was as if the atmosphere had been purged.” Yet several more songs were performed, with the Stones, in Booth’s words, “playing as well as or better than I’d ever heard them — playing, under the circumstances, like heroes.” And there, lest it get lost in the tumult, is another key feature of Gimme Shelter: it is a great rock documentary. Named after the lead song on The Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed, which was released the day before Altamont, the film shows the band playing in prime form. (That album, incidentally, like “no rock record, before or since,” as Stephen Davis argues, “completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.”) The Stones had only been at it since 1962, though, releasing their first album just five years prior. But their reputation was increasingly well-established. Buoyed by drug use, overt sexuality and jail time, the Stones had affirmed a rebelliously engaging, magnetic aplomb, which Gimme Shelter capitalizes on to great effect, savoring the pride and provocation of their rock persona. The band sounds exceptional here, fueling and feeding off the crowd, concocting a frenzied combination of enticement and incitement. Looking over the concert footage, delighting in his image and his on-stage antics, Jagger stands outside himself, in a sense, and appears to recognize (and appreciate) the engineered nature of his performance, of his act. He has honed an unmistakable onstage presence, with flamboyant attire, gesticulations, props, gyrations and what remains a staggering dose of enlivened, carnal energy; he struts around on-stage and coyly remarks that he busted a button on his trousers, teasing the crowd that they might fall down. The composite effect on fans is undeniable, and Gimme Shelter effectively records the desire for intimacy with the band, the need for impassioned proximity as ardent individuals clamor toward and onto the stage with an uninhibited yearning.

The Rolling Stones, who had recently welcomed Jones’ replacement, Mick Taylor, previously of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, are also shown to be confidently casual, listening to a recording of “Wild Horses” as the camera moves from face to placid face, eventually landing on Richards’ tapping snakeskin boot. Back in their hotel room (a Holiday Inn, apparently, as stunning as that now seems), the boys play a fresh record of “Brown Sugar,” dancing along to their latest offering. Gimme Shelter shows a band that knows exactly what it’s doing, whether they like it all or not. During a press junket, Jagger is asked if he is finally satisfied. “Financially dissatisfied,” he responds, “sexually satisfied, philosophically trying.” Then, Jagger, back at the editing table, quietly mutters, “Rubbish.” Is he referring to the question, his answer, or the whole dog and pony show of a rock and roll idol? Critic Amy Taubin points to a certain arrogance related to this facade. “If Gimme Shelter were a Greek tragedy,” she writes, “we’d call it hubris.” Cigarettes in hand, hidden behind dark sunglasses, adopting a thoroughly disaffected manner, the Stones are cocky for sure, and some have pointed to that attitude as to why, in part, Altamont went wrong: because everyone involved thought they could do no wrong. They were on top of the world, a world at their command, reaping and relishing the benefits of fame and freedom. However, dealing with a show “impulsively conceived and shoddily planned,” in Taubin’s words, the resulting film “neither blames the Stones nor lets them off the hook.” Although they seem like the “good guys” compared to the Angels, Taubin points to a “multiplicity of truths in Gimme Shelter.” Putting them together, she notes, “is up to us.”

“In fact,” elaborates critic Godfrey Cheshire, “Gimme Shelter cannot contain all the moral quandaries it evokes — including its own impact on events — and that, like it or not, is part of its brilliance and fascination.” The Rolling Stones’ music, the violence and volatility evoked by certain songs, engendered a mythic darkness that enveloped their hedonistic guise. But one can’t blame the Stones for providing what turned out to be a fitting soundtrack to the real world, a world plagued by poor judgement, greed, excess, and viciousness. “It reminds us of the ever unsteady relationship between art and morality,” notes Cheshire, “and that the strict correlation we wish to find between the two may ultimately be necessary but illusory.” Cheshire also points to Pauline Kael’s 1970 review of the film, in which she bizarrely asserts that reviewing Gimme Shelter is like “reviewing the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination or of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder.” This movie is “into complications and sleight-of-hand beyond Pirandello,” she wrote, “since the filmed death at Altamont — although, of course, unexpected — was part of a cinema verité spectacular.” She cynically states the “free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed, and three hundred thousand people who attended it were the unpaid cast of thousands. The violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema verité jackpot.”

To this “venomous tirade,” Cheshire concludes Kael’s comments “might be attributed in part to the fact that she didn’t have a rock-and-roll bone in her body,” and Gimme Shelter’s filmmakers later addressed her criticism in a rebuttal, arguing they “were not consulted and had no control over the staging and lighting at Altamont.” Still, that doesn’t mean  doesn’t look astonishingly vibrant. The New York show, for instance, is bathed in red, white, and blue, from Jagger’s stars and stripes headwear to the bold lights flooding over the stage and the crowd. In this and other ways, particularly the crowd scenes at Altamont and the sequences of Jagger and the band in unadorned, on-the-road locations, Gimme Shelter simply looks American, and its culmination can’t help but strike a redolent chord with the nation’s agitated ambiance. Elsewhere, Maysles and Zwerin present a honed attention to detail, to the cursory elements of any given scene: zooming in on Jagger’s long red scarf nearly caught in a closing car door; a slow-motion shot of the crowd bobbing their heads in unison during the Stones’ bluesy “Love in Vain”; finding single, indelible faces in the audience, a young, mournful girl, for example, with tears trickling down her face. They also know when to embrace more patently arresting images, like brief but stunningly sensual footage of Tina Turner at the Madison Square Garden concert (an inclusion Jagger sours somewhat by wryly remarking, “It’s nice to have a chick occasionally”), and recording from an advancing helicopter as it follows an extensive, curving line of parked cars along the road leading to the speedway, unspooling a liberated mass of people that impresses even the Stones. At ground level, Gimme Shelter introduces an ensemble of hippie clichés: the ubiquitous freak outs; the concertgoers only too happy to remove their clothes; attendees blowing bubbles, tossing frisbees, and so on. And near the end, after the Stones make their getaway aboard a helicopter (or “whirlybird,” in 1969 parlance), a crowd of departing concertgoers appear as extracted silhouettes rambling over the hills at night, like zombies emerging from some apocalyptic aftermath.

It’s worth repeating and remembering that Albert and David Maysles obviously didn’t know what was going to happen at Altamont. They just wanted to follow The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band on tour. After the death occurred, though, the crux of the film was undoubtably going to shift. It became a tricky situation, and some criticized their decision to subsequently modify the completed picture and to, accordingly, release Gimme Shelter with a newfound focus. Were they manipulating audiences, capitalizing on the catastrophe, or was the alteration merely unavoidable? Kael wasn’t the only critic who had issues relating to the perceived exploitation of the film, but like Kael, these critics missed the film’s nuanced balancing of decisive subject with initial framework, a balance accomplished — more accurately — without comment or conceit. As Richard Brody notes in The New Yorker, “the editing-room sequences render the concert footage archival, making it look like what it is — in effect, found footage of a historical event.” Shooting Jagger in the editing room was Zwerin’s idea, and as something of a work-in-progress, Gimme Shelter’s construction was part of the point. And it yields one of the film’s most rightfully famous moments, as Jagger looks at the stabbing and asks David Maysles to play it back. He (and we) see the assault again, slowed down. Jagger looks genuinely forlorn. “That’s so horrible,” he quietly muses. He rises from the editing table and starts to walk out the room. The film freezes and zooms in.

Amazingly, Gimme Shelter captures more than one such transcendent moment in time. Throughout the film, the Maysles and Zwerin corroborate a social and national tremor that was taking place, a tainted euphoria where sex, drugs and rock and roll were no longer pure and categorically peaceful. Gimme Shelter shows something obscene, something catastrophic and pathetic. The whole debacle becomes a recipe for disaster; it’s too much, too quick. The concert was an “excuse,” according to Jagger, meaning the real purpose of the event was to bring people together. But as it turned out, that notorious show in late 1969 did, in fact, become quite more than a concert, and the film of its consequence is quite more than a concert documentary. Whether they intended to or not, the Gimme Shelter filmmakers had tapped into and exposed a diabolical soul and a deep-seated hostility. The sun that had fleetingly shone so brightly was starting to set.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, The Retro Set, The Moving Image and Diabolique Magazine. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.