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DirectorDavid Maysles/Albert Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin
Release Date(s)1970 (December 1, 2009)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #99)
In 1969, The Rolling Stones decided to put on a free concert for charity at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco, California. It began as a risky attempt at getting a bunch of folks together for a good time with some good music. It morphed into a semi-Woodstock type of atmosphere, but the show had barely gotten off the ground before the trouble began. And once the Stones had taken the stage, violence in the crowd had erupted. It was an incident that’s marked as one of the worst in the history of rock and roll, and is captured with all of its raw intensity in the landmark documentary film Gimme Shelter.
While the Rolling Stones were on tour in 1969, filmmaker Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) had it in mind to capture the band during the end of their tour, but when he decided not to go through with it, he turned the idea over to filmmakers David and Albert Maysles. Along with Charlotte Zwerin, they followed the band around on their last ten days of touring, in particular at the Madison Square Garden in New York and in the studio during mixing stages of their latest album “Sticky Fingers”. But the documentary took a dark turn when at the aforementioned free concert in San Francisco, the Hells Angels showed up to do the security. Whether it was an angst-driven audience or the Hells Angels themselves, the atmosphere quickly turned sour, resulting in the deaths of four people. The band didn’t even finish their set because of all of the craziness taking place in the crowd.
Now for me personally, The Rolling Stones have always been one of my favorite rock and roll bands. They’re the perfect mixture of garage, stadium and experimental rock and roll, with a swagger and a sound that’s instantly recognizable. It’s nice to see them during the period where they were at their most experimental musically, and made some of their best albums. As for the documentary itself, it’s riveting in form. It’s a slow build-up of tension, beginning with the band’s management having to switch venues for the free concert at the last minute, knowing that it wouldn’t be big enough to facilitate the 300,000 people that would be in attendance. During the documentary, the Stones are shown the raw footage and we watch along with them, building to a fever pitch when all hell breaks loose towards the end. Thankfully, we do get to see them in action at the Madison Square Garden show, but the descent into madness is captivating, and you can’t take your eyes off of it.
Gimme Shelter ends on a bit of a sour note, but not in a way where you feel like you’ve had a bad experience. Along with the music itself, the rawness of it and the slow build-up makes you want to go back and watch it again. It’s fascinating in a morbid kind of way, especially when you consider the fact that the filmmakers caught murder happening on film. The tension is there, but the experience is electrifying.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Gimme Shelter has been given a brand-new high definition transfer, utilizing “the uncensored thirtieth-anniversary version” of the film and supervised by Albert Maysles. It’s set within a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is perfect for the subject matter. There’s a very heavy but healthy amount of film grain on display, but never intrusive. It feels very natural to the material, which was shot on 16mm film and then transferred to 35mm for its original theatrical release. Colors and skin tones are nice, and blacks are amazingly deep. And thankfully, there are no issues with contrast or brightness. A lot of the film was shot on the fly with a variety of 16mm cameras and operators (including a young George Lucas, whose material was never used in the final cut), but the footage used is well-edited and looks fantastic, with plenty of image detail on display. The audio is also quite good. Again, given that the majority of it was recorded live and raw (except for the moments in the studio and live on stage), it sounds quite good, and appropriate. It shows its age, but everything is very clear and sounds terrific. You have two DTS-HD options to choose from, 5.1 and 2.0, and both are equally-good. The surround mix may have a bit more soundscape to work with, but the stereo mix is quite impressive too (and preferable to old schoolers like myself). There are subtitles in English for those who need them, but whoever encoded them obviously didn’t research any of the Stones’ music as most of the lyrics are completely wrong. Oh well, can’t win them all.
There’s also plenty of supplemental material to cull through, beginning with an audio commentary with directors Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, and their collaborator Stanley Goldstein; a set of audio excerpts from the KSAN Radio’s Altamont wrap-up on December 7, 1969 with introductions by former DJ Stefan Ponek; a set of outtakes, which include footage of the band mixing “Little Queenie”, a backstage moment with Ike and Tina Turner & Mick Jagger, and performances from the Madison Square Garden show of “Oh Carol” and “Prodigal Son”; a stills gallery with photographs taken by Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower; two theatrical trailers and a rerelease trailer; and finally, a 36-page booklet with essays by film critic Amy Taubin, music writer Stanley Booth, Mick Jagger’s former assistant Georgia Bergman, music writer Michael Lydon, and film critic Godfrey Cheshire.
Those who are upgrading from the original Criterion DVD release should note that the following extras weren’t ported over for the Blu-ray release: trailers for Maysles Films’ Grey Gardens and Salesman; filmographies for Maysles Films and Charlotte Zwerin; a restoration demonstration; an essay by ex-Oakland Hell’s Angels chapter head Sonny Barger; and the soundtracks, which were Dolby Digital and DTS tracks respectively. Minor losses, and the restoration demonstration is obsolete because of the new transfer, but if you’re interested in keeping all of this material, plan accordingly.
David and Albert Maysles would go on to make another fine documentary, Grey Gardens, but its Gimme Shelter that has gotten them the most attention. And with this great Blu-ray release of one of the best rock and roll documentaries out there, you can’t go wrong. You can’t always get what you want, but you might find that you get what you need with the Blu-ray release of Gimme Shelter.
- Tim Salmons