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The peace and love 1960s come to a violent end at Altamont '69 in "Gimme Shelter"

(Photo credit: Ethan Russell)

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Documentarians Albert and David Maysles filmed the extreme ups and downs of 1960s music, going from the upbeat Fab Four chronicle of "What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A." to the downbeat Rolling Stones debacle of "Gimme Shelter."

“My brother and I captured the mood of the time with those two films,” Albert Maysles told me in a 2006 interview for the Toronto Star. “Things changed radically at the very end of that decade. So we had both bookends, if you will.”

"Gimme Shelter" is some bookend. Released 50 years ago this weekend, it shows what happened — including a slaying caught on camera — at a disastrous music festival hosted by the Rolling Stones at Altamont Speedway in California on Dec. 6, 1969.

Co-directed by Charlotte Zwerin, who also edited the film, it's at once the best and most infamous of rock docs. My review:

It’s December '69 in northern California and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger stands nervously in front of a cold and cranked-up crowd of 350,000 at Altamont Speedway, a place designed more for cars than people. Thrown together in a few days and with multiple venue changes, the one-day Altamont music festival — a bill that also includes Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, CSN&Y and the Grateful Dead — is attempting to one-up the magic of Woodstock a few months earlier. But nothing is going according to plan.

“Brothers and sisters, c’mon now! Will you cool out, everybody?” Jaggers pleads, as the crowd pushes dangerously close to the rickety wooden stage, which stands barely above ground level. He's dressed in a black-and-red caped outfit that could have been designed at the request of Their Satanic Majesties.

Hell’s Angels bikers, given $500 worth of beer to act as security at the Stones-headlining fest, are smacking unwary heads with leaded pool cues and lobbed beer cans. The Angels don’t want anybody touching their motorcycles, which are parked in front of the stage. Yet it’s impossible not to do so in the crush of bodies.

Singing "Under My Thumb," a hoarse-sounding Jagger changes the "It's all right" line to "I pray that it's all right," as scuffles ensue mere feet away from the stage, reaching a bloody apex as a knife-wielding Angel leaps towards at gun-waving concertgoer.

This scene is caught in all its terrifying reality by the 16mm cinéma vérité of "Gimme Shelter," a documentary by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin that still chills the blood a half century later.

Many people, the Rolling Stones first and foremost, would rather forget Altamont, the concert that left 850 injured and four people dead. (The Grateful Dead ultimately bailed on the show, fearful of the mayhem they would later recall in their song "New Speedway Boogie," which ends with the lines, One way or another / This darkness got to give.)

The film won't let us forget, but what's the fascination with an ill-fated rock show at the tail end of the flower power Sixties? A lot of it has to do with schadenfreude, watching the high and mighty being humbled in spectacular fashion.

The Stones had missed Woodstock and wanted to conclude their 1969 tour by one-upping the hippie circus. Frontman Jagger pompously muses early in the film that the free concert would be “creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.” He must wince now at that prediction.

There’s no denying the movie’s real hook. It’s the brutal rush of seeing a man murdered before our very eyes as the Stones perform their screw-you song “Under My Thumb.”

One of the masterstrokes of "Gimme Shelter," Zwerin's idea, is the framing device of the Stones watching a replay of the murder on a Moviola editing machine, making them participants and observers at one and the same time.

There’s an unspoken but hard-earned cynicism here that is very much in line with the documentarians of today. The central truth of the film is that you can’t put 350,000 people together in adverse circumstances and expect them all to get along, no matter how much peace, love and understanding you profess to have.

Woodstock had summer warmth and months of planning behind it. Altamont had nothing but blind ambition and bad vibes.

(From "Movies I Can't Live Without," by Peter Howell.)



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