There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Gimme Shelter, which is streaming over on Hulu.
With an entire nation riding on a knife-edge of election related anxiety and exhaustion, recommending Gimme Shelter is either the best or worst idea heading into this particular week, depending on your current mental state. Documenting one of the most prominent and sadly poetic tragedies in the history of rock and roll, Albert and David Maysles film picks apart the process by which everything went wrong at the infamous Altamont Free Concert in early December 1969. I’m not going to waste anyones time stretching myself into a pretzel in order to wring some ham-handed political parallels here, but just be forewarned that this nerve-rattling nightmare of a movie will be the equivalent of mainlining a cup of strong cup of coffee.
Before we dive into the film though, a little bit of history: These days, music festivals are relatively streamlined affairs. Annual bacchanals like Coachella and Bonnaroo are well-organized and safe events, designed to maximize the experience for every attendee with well-oiled mechanical precision. Back in the late ‘60s though, the massive music fest was a relatively new concept. 1968’s Newport Pop Festival was the first to top 100,000 attendees. Just a year later Woodstock ("An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music!") would quadruple that amount. Woodstock, with fence jumpers, technical difficulties, knee-deep mud, and bad-trip brown acid, miraculously managed to flip the script and is fondly remembered as the massive shit-show that could. Everyone pitched in, helped one another, and showed the world that a hippie utopia was achievable, if only for a little while. Those 72 hours out on Yasgur’s Farm will rightfully go down in history as a counter-culture high water mark, but the buzz was short lived, as the Rolling Stones would soon discover. Set just east of San Francisco, their Altamont Free Concert (some called it "Woodstock West") would ultimately leave four people dead including Meredith Hunter who was killed by a Hells Angels member at the fest to provide security for the event.
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” It’s impossible not to read that famous sequences from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas as a direct indictment of Altamont. Gimme Shelter opens with “Jumpin jack Flash,” the first song the band played that night. Mick Jagger is wiggling all over the stage, amping the audience up with an inimitable electricity. You think they’re gonna dig this out and save the day by the sheer primal force of rock and roll, but they just can’t reach the impossible escape velocity. There’s a moment when, during one of the many times Jagger had to call on the crowd to settle down, the filmmakers catch a closeup of a woman pressed up against the stage whose face is streaked with tears. A man behind her mouths the words “make them stop,” referencing the umpteenth time that pool cue wielding Hells Angels had jumped into the crowd in the name of maintaining order. Jagger tries to jump back into “Under My Thumb” but the same energy that was there earlier is gone. The wave had broken, and rolled back, but the worst moment of the night was still to come.
In the wake of every tragedy there is, of course, a desire to point a finger. Part of the power of the here is that the Maysles are able to take the Rolling Stones to task for their part in everything that went down, even if somewhat obliquely. We are a fly on the wall as the band watches footage of themselves on stage, visibly enjoying the early bits, but each member becomes increasingly somber as things progressively escape their control. We finally get to the moment when Meredith Hunter is stabbed by the biker, and Jagger has the filmmakers replay the sequence. It is pointed out to Jagger that Hunter was brandishing a gun, clearly visible, thus making his stabbing an act of “self-defense,” but it’s gut wrenching to hear Hunter’s girlfriend plead with medics to do everything they can to keep him alive even while they’re zipping him into a body bag. Despite whatever the jury might have said, the bulk of the guilt for Hunter’s death should clearly weigh heavily on the Stones's epic mismanagement of the event, a point that’s hammered home in the final freeze frame of Jagger after he has soberly gotten up to leave, saying "Alright. See y'all." to the film crew like it’s the last day of a court appointed class for drunk drivers. He learned a lesson, but you still feel like he got away with significantly less of a punishment than he perhaps deserved.
I had only watched this film once before, years ago (it’s not exactly the kind of thing you get an itch to watch), and this time through I couldn’t help picking up on the ways that it’s laid out like a grindhouse horror film. Everything about Altamont was rickety and low-rent, from the scaffolding that intrepid audience members are asked not to climb, on down to the jank-ass stage that literally comes to just chest high on people in the front row. There’s a steady application of tension, starting with a radio news bulletin mentioning multiple deaths at the concert and ramping up with each shot of an audience member in the midst of an uncontrolled acid freakout. This is all before you get to the crazed maniacs in black leather lashing out at seemingly innocent people. Almost fifty years after the fact, every frame of film hits with an unexpected forcefulness. The horrific truth here is that it was all too real.