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With: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, Melvin Belli, Jerry Garcia, Meredith Hunter, Paul Kantner, Phil Lesh, Gram Parsons, Alan Passaro, Michael Shrieve, Grace Slick, Ike Turner, Tina Turner
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 91
Date: 12/06/1970

Gimme Shelter (1970)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Sympathy and Some Taste

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Rolling Stones may or may not be the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band, but during the years 1968 to 1972, they could do no wrong. During this period they released four unalloyed masterpieces; "Beggars Banquet" (1968), "Let It Bleed" (1969), "Sticky Fingers" (1971), and "Exile on Main Street" (1972). So even if Gimme Shelter (1970) were a mere document of a Rolling Stones concert, it would already be a great film.

But Gimme Shelter is more. It's about a time when things began to get out of hand. When the Rolling Stones decided to end their 1969 American tour with a free concert at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco, everyone thought it was going to be another Woodstock. People were prepared for a night of peace and love. The Hell's Angels were there to act as security. Tensions escalated. And a man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death.

Directed by brothers David and Albert Maysles along with Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter perfectly captures the might of the Rolling Stones and the tragedy of that moment and effortlessly combines them. The directors cleverly took an extra day to film the band members, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman, watching the footage of the concert and the stabbing. The looks on their faces, especially Jagger's, are astonishing.

The movie begins with footage of the Stones playing in Madison Square Garden, in an uninterrupted concert, so that we can get a blast of their music and escalate the excitement for the Altamont show. We then see images of famous lawyer Melvin Belli attempting to settle the details of the concert; parking, toilet facilities, etc. Belli is almost like a spectre of things to come; a music industry controlled by businessmen and lawyers and no more wild, passionate bands like the Rolling Stones.

The Altamont concert begins. The directors give us shots of some freaks in the audience, much like the freaks in Woodstock (1970). But soon after opening bands Ike & Tina Turner (who smokes her way through a number, by the way), Jefferson Airplane, and the Flying Burrito Brothers take the stage, little fights start breaking out. People on drugs don't seem to be having a very good time. A bad vibe is in the air. The Stones take the stage. They begin to play "Sympathy for the Devil," which is maybe a bad idea. The vibe turns deadly bad. A Hell's Angel at the edge of the stage leers at Jagger with intense hatred. Jagger tried to cool the crowd down and then launches into "Under My Thumb."

That's when it happens.

The Maysles brothers and Zwerin are smart enough to give everything to us in a casual, observing journalistic style with no sentimentality or sensation (they had just come off of their groundbreaking documentary Salesman). It's a film you can get down to or sit back and reflect on. It's a hell of an achievement.

The new Criterion Collection DVD represents the ultimate version of Gimme Shelter. The first time I saw the film was on a horrible, muddy VHS tape made from the 35mm blow-ups of the film. It was grainy and the sound was thick and muddled. I saw the film again in a new print several years ago at San Francisco's Roxie Theater. But the Criterion crew has made their new DVD from the original 16mm camera negatives and the original magnetic soundtrack, plus a little digital polishing.

The picture is clean and vibrant and the sound is now clear and crisp, better than I could ever have imagined it. If that weren't enough Gimme Shelter comes with a load of extras, including commentary by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, trailers, outtakes, stills, excerpts from the KSAN radio broadcast, filmographies, and a restoration demonstration. The DVD jacket booklet is packed with essays and recollections from people who were there and people who love the film. Gimme Shelter is a must.

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