Thursday, July 31, 2003

The Devils of Altamont: Gimme Shelter (1970)

The walls were soft on December 6th, 1969. The Rolling Stones, near the end of a triumphant tour of the States, trundled into California to perform at the Altamont Speedway for a free concert. 300,000 people attended the show and four of them never made it out alive. The most notorious of the deaths was that of Meredith Hunter, a young, gun-brandishing black man who was killed by members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club in “self-defense” while the Stones performed “Under My Thumb” just a few feet away. The Angels stabbed Meredith in the back like a sacrificial lamb, an offering to the gods of chaos and misrule. Rolling Stones biographer Stanley Booth, in his liner notes to the DVD, explains that the mood immediately changed after the killing. All of the madness and violence leading up to the death had finally reared its ugly head as far as it would go. “We didn’t know whether Hunter had been killed, wounded, or what, but the mood seemed to change,” Booth said. “It was as if the atmosphere had been purged.” The walls were indeed soft that cool winter’s day, proving yet again that when the Devil rocks, he rocks hard.

There’s no doubt that Gimme Shelter is one of the greatest concert films ever. From the opening moments wherein we see the band playing brilliantly at Madison Square Garden to the last frozen shot of Mick Jagger’s unreadable face after he’s viewed the footage of Hunter’s death in the editing room, the filmmakers (David & Albert Maysles with their longtime collaborator Charlotte Zwerin) give us telling snapshots of life backstage, in the studio, and out on the stage where it all matters. Good enough, but we’ve seen it a million times before. No, what makes the film truly unforgettable, are the moments when the camera quietly observes Mick and drummer Charlie Watts while they watch the Altamont footage. Watts, who can’t hide his boyish excitement as the Harley riding Angels storm through the crowd of shell-shocked hippies, also looks visibly dismayed as the day gets more and more out of control. Mick, on the other hand, looks vacant and self-conscious, as if he just wants this bummer trip to end so that he can get back to rockin’ his way into oblivion. For a band that always epitomized the grandiose Dionysian aspects of the outlaw rocker lifestyle, and who frequently courted the Devil’s favor in many of their songs, the seeming ignorance of their own diabolic power is unfortunate to say the least.

Gimme Shelter is available on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection. The disc includes audio commentary from Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, and collaborator Stanley Goldstein. There are some great outtakes and never-before-seen performance clips from the Madison Square Garden show, including some great backstage footage of Mick, Tina and Ike Turner, and lots more. So what are you waiting for? Give the Devil his due!

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