The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter

Movie Review #852: The most fascinating and the most brutal documentary my eyes have ever watched.

By Alexander Diminiano

Gimme Shelter

Documentary, Music
Rated R (contains footage of actual murder, disturbing content, violence, graphic nudity, drug use, strong language)
91 minutes

On December 6, 1969, a free concert was held on the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco, California.  The concert was expected to go down in history as “Woodstock West.”  When talking about the attendance of the concert, that it was indeed.  300,000 people congregated around a scaffold to hear multiple bands perform rock ‘n roll music.  But Altamont wasn’t at all the peaceful gathering that Woodstock was.  Practically everybody at the concert was using hallucinogenic drugs, and by the time the Rolling Stones got on the scaffold to perform the final act, violent outbreaks were beginning to erupt between the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (who acted as security guards during the concert) and the audience.  At multiple times during the concert, Mick Jagger would tell everybody that there would be no more music until everybody calmed down.  In fact, he stopped right in the middle of “Sympathy for the Devil” to ask what all the fighting was about, before completely restarting the song.  During the next number, “Under My Thumb”, a man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by Hells Angels member Alan Passaro.

The truth is stranger than fiction.  So much stranger, and we are able to thoroughly understand that adage when watching the documentary “The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter”.  Directors Albert and David Maysles captured unbelievably raw footage from the Altamont Concert on December 6th, and it’s viscerally edited by Charlotte Zwerin (who’s credited as another director).  There’s moments in the film that are as disturbing as they are hypnotizing.  The audience is seen writhing around like animals and thinking nothing of it.  Some audience members clamber up on the stage while the Stones are performing, in an attempt to talk to their frontman Mick Jagger, only to get thrown back out into the crowd by the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.  The Stones try and act like they don’t see anything going on.  The sight of this movie is almost too surreal and nightmareish to believe.

Perhaps the scenes that convince us this isn’t just an exaggerated drama are the most disturbing of all.  “Gimme Shelter” features more than simply the events that happened on this tragic night.  We are taken inside the editing room, where various member  of the band watch the recordings of the concert, and listen to later reports about it.  Their reactions intensify the film.  “Gimme Shelter” culminates in the shocking murder of Meredith Hunter, and the event almost unnoticeable until the footage is played back in slow motion.  This documentary is the nonfiction equivalent of a thriller.  Every moment leading up to that incident presents strange, violent outbursts that grow more and more unsettling.

“Gimme Shelter” is a disturbing documentary that has met extreme controversy since its release, exactly a year after the events at Altamont.    This isn’t a depiction of Altamont as the concert it was but as the unexpected battle that it was.  “The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter” is a call to action.  It’s a plea for an end to the idealistically good, but ultimately abused counterculture of the 1960s.  The title comes from the Stones’ antiwar song (and my unyielding favorite of theirs), and there couldn’t possibly be a better title.  As a matter of fact, the song’s third verse provides a perfect eye for these tragic events.  Ooh, the storm is threatening my very life today.  Gimme, gimme shelter, or I’m gonna fade away.