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Film / Gimme Shelter

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"People, who's fighting and what for?"

Gimme Shelter is a 1970 Rockumentary and Concert Film documenting the 1969 American tour by The Rolling Stones, then hitting their peak as artists. It was shot by Albert and David Maysles and directed by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. The film is named after a song from the Stones' 1969 album Let It Bleed.

The film was originally supposed to be a straightforward documentary of the Stones on their 1969 American tour, which was to culminate with a free concert held at the Altamont Speedway in California on December 6, 1969, featuring the Stones as co-headliners with The Grateful Dead and such supporting acts as Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The free concert, which was anticipated by many as a West Coast answer to that summer's Woodstock festival, was originally supposed to be held at San Jose State University; then, after they backed out, in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; but there were conflicts with authorities and a previously-scheduled football game there. The show was then moved to the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County, but financial conflicts with the raceway owners prompted one final location change just 24 hours before the event, to the Altamont Speedway, a much smaller and more remote venue on the outskirts of Alameda County. This last-minute planning led to 300,000 people descending upon a barren, unfriendly environment with an extremely small stage (designed for earlier venues where it would have been up on a hill or platform) placed at the bottom of a hill. With gravity pulling people down the incline, they ended up in a mass crush against the stage.


Altamont was not intended as a concert venue. Hell's Angel Bill Fritsch called it "A goddamn fucking bereft pasture in the middle of nothing," and his fellow Angel Willie Tumbleweed said "Couple wire fences, cow shit, not even a barn." There were no facilities to support a massive crowd — too few toilets, bare minimum first aid, very little in the way of medical staff, nothing. Also no security, which led the Rolling Stones' tour manager Sam Cutler to hire the Hell's Angels biker gang for security around the stage. The story goes that the Angels were recommended to the Stones by the Grateful Dead, who had used the relatively well-behaved San Francisco chapter to do security at concerts with no incident. Security at Altamont, however, was instead largely provided by members of the Oakland chapter, which had a more violent reputation. While the Angels warned they were not really security guards, they agreed to simply keep people away from the stage and the equipment, and perhaps stop fights or give directions. They were paid with $500 worth of beer.note 


Just to repeat, the Stones' tour manager hired a biker gang for security, and paid them with beer.

The result was a disaster. While things started out fairly well, with a desire to recreate the legendary "peace and music" Woodstock vibe, the concert eventually descended into chaos and violence. Part of this was due to the lack of crowd control. Performers and attendees later described a very strange, and even nasty, ambience that was the opposite of Woodstock, with a sense that everyone was impatient to have the full Woodstock experience crammed into a single day. They were in a hurry to get to the concert site, get high on whatever drugs happened to be available, then watch the show, with the hopes that the other 300,000 people at the show would just stay out of their way and leave them alone. At Woodstock, security had been provided by a gentle "Please Force" (please do this, please don't do that) led by professional Non-Ironic Clown and Merry Prankster Wavy Gravy. At Altamont, it was the Hell's Angels, a biker gang, who were soon heavily liquored up. They have a hard and fast rule about anyone touching an Angel's bike without permission, and apparently a bike got knocked over in the crowd crush and the Angels began beating people with weighted pool cues. They were soon beating anyone at random. They didn't stop with audience members; Jefferson Airplane lead vocalist Marty Balin was knocked unconscious, as shown in the film.note  Mick Jagger himself had been punched in the face by a random stranger (also shown in the film) as the Stones arrived.note 

Further fueling the hostilities, the Stones delayed their part of the show until well after dark. Many had waited over 24 hours to hear them and reacted with impatience and anger. Additionally, the Grateful Dead, who had co-planned the whole show and were supposed to co-headline with the Stones, were stunned by the violence at the festival when they arrivednote  and split the scene as soon as they were informed of what happened to Balin. The lack of the Dead caused a large hole in the concert lineup, which made concertgoers even more agitated. Angels Willie Tumbleweed and Bill Fritsch warned the Stones backstage that their delaying tactics would cause the crowd to "blow beyond sanity" and that people would die. They finally had to force the band out onto the stage.

The concert, and the film, were made infamous when an 18-year-old man named Meredith Hunter pulled a gun, and was promptly stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel, not more than 15 feet from the stage. This act of violence was captured on camera and is shown in the film.

The Altamont concert may have been conceived as a "Woodstock West", but instead wound up being cited as a cultural landmark heralding the death of The '60s and the counter-culture.note  Besides its cultural implications, the film is also one hell of a rockumentary, featuring the Stones at their peak, as well as performances by Jefferson Airplane, Ike and Tina Turner, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.note  Prior to Altamont, the Stones are shown recording "Wild Horses" and "Brown Sugar" at a studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama; both songs would subsequently be included on their classic Sticky Fingers album. George Lucas was a cameraman at Altamont; his camera jammed and none of his footage made it in the film. This film helped make the Maysles brothers famous; they went on to direct several more "direct cinema" documentaries, like the iconic Grey Gardens.

More about the show and what went wrong can be heard in this excerpt from KSAN Radio's four-hour post-mortem the following day; and in this article about the events and this article about the trial from Rolling Stone magazine, and this article by David Curry. Saul Austerlitz's book Just A Shot Away provides an in-depth analysis, including a 2015 interview with Hunter's sister, contextualizing his death in light of more recent scandalous murders of black men. Joel Selvin's book Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day is also worth a read. There are more details in Gatz Hjortsberg's Jubilee Hitchhiker, his massive biography of Richard Brautigan.note  Negativland's Don Joyce covered Altamont in sound collage form in chapter 36 of 'How Radio Was Done'.

For the 2014 indie drama film starring Vanessa Hudgens, see Gimme Shelter (2014).

Tropes in this film:

  • All Bikers Are Hells Angels: Played as straight as straight can be with the actual Hell's Angels, leather jacket-wearing thugs clubbing people over the head, screaming at Jefferson Airplane on the stage, blaming the violence on people messing with their bikes (this in a radio interview with Hell's Angels founder Sonny Barger), and stabbing a man to death. Alan Passaro, the biker who is shown quite clearly as he raises a knife and stabs Meredith Hunter in the back, was acquitted of murder after the film footage showed Hunter carrying a gun (the gun is visible against his girlfriend's dress).
  • Anachronic Order: The film starts with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts watching the Maysles' raw footage of Altamont. Then it vaults back to the beginning, with the Stones at the photo shoot that would yield the cover to live album Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out (note the donkey). Scenes from the tour are interposed with scenes of the frantic last-minute bargaining that led to the concert at Altamont Speedway. The last shots, after the Altamont concert is over, are scenes of concert-goers arriving.
  • Aside Glance: Charlie Watts keeps looking at the camera that is filming him during the playback of "Wild Horses". He seems like he's annoyed.
  • The Cameo: The Grateful Dead — who had planned the whole show along with the Stones and were supposed to be co-headliners — show up via helicopter, talk about the bad scene that's evolving at Altamont (Mick Jagger getting punched in the face being cited), and promptly leave. That decision was made because Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia had been informed by Santana percussionist Michael Shrieve about the Angels assaulting and threatening members of Jefferson Airplane while they performed.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Meredith Hunter, a tall black man in a lime green suit, is prominently featured in a shot of the crowd during the Stones' performance of "Sympathy for the Devil". He was killed minutes later, while the Stones were performing "Under My Thumb".
  • Concert Film: Altamont, as well as a concert at Madison Square Garden that went a lot more smoothly.
  • Crowd Surfing: Yep, there is a young gentleman crowd surfing, Rock Star type, during the Flying Burrito Brothers' set.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses" got their first wide exposure in the film, released a few months before the songs were. They also played "Brown Sugar" at the concert.
  • Fan Disservice: The fat naked man, who seemed to be OK with being fat and being naked. More disturbingly, the nude and obviously very intoxicated woman who tries to climb up on the stage while the Stones are playing.
  • Fanservice: The topless woman demonstrating Gainaxing while Jefferson Airplane plays.
  • Framing Device: Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger watching raw footage of the concert.
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: About the 51-minute mark in the film, a man asks Sam Cutler to do a PA announcement asking help for an attendee who's badly freaking out. Cutler's reply is "tough shit"; there will be no negative stage announcements, as it'll put the crowd in a very bad mood by nightfall. The concerned man reminds Cutler that such announcements were given openly at Woodstock, and that Cutler was there and should remember. Cutler doesn't reply but he's clearly aware of a different ambience at this show. The artists were the ones to call for help from the stage.
  • Is There a Doctor in the House?: The cry "we need a doctor" is first heard from the stage after the Hell's Angels start cracking skulls during the Flying Burrito Brothers' set. Mick Jagger starts calling out for a doctor right after Meredith Hunter is killed during a performance of "Under My Thumb". He knew Hunter was badly injured but not that he had died. The band continued playing, fearing a riot if they stopped. Keith Richards, in fact, had had enough and tried to leave, until Hell's Angel Sonny Barger held a gun to his head and said "You keep fuckin' playing or you're dead." Richards complied.note  See Tempting Fate, below.
  • Large Ham: Mick Jagger, full stop—wearing an Uncle Sam hat and a Standard Superhero Suit, prancing about, asking the audience if they want to see him drop his trousers. This turns tragic at Altamont, when Jagger begs the audience for calm, to no avail.
    Don't fuck it up, man. Come on, let's get it together. I can't do any more than just ask you, beg you, just to keep it together. You can do it. It's within your power. Everyone, Hell's Angels, everybody, let's just keep ourselves together. You know, if we are all one, let's show we're all one...
  • Lens Flare: Seen during an eerie shot of people walking past the camera in the dark as a bright spotlight shines in the background.
  • Mood Whiplash: The peace-and-love vibe of the concert, which had already been getting rather ominous, turns dark when Hell's Angels bikers start clubbing people while the Flying Burrito Brothers are performing "Six Days on the Road". When the Airplane start playing you can see Grace Slick trying to be cheerfully energetic, but it's clear she's worried. Moments later she cries out "Easy! Easy!" as the Angels light into her bandmate. She exhorts the crowd, including the Angels, to "stop fucking up", to no avail.
  • Never Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight: A tragic Real Life example. Hunter clearly has a gun in his left hand—it is visible against the pattern of his girlfriend's dress. But the Hell's Angel knocks the gun aside, pushes Hunter away, and stabs him in the back. (His girlfriend's testimony and the toxicology report showed that Hunter was high on methamphetamine.)
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: The Altamont concert and this film are far more notorious for the violence and murder that took place there than the music.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: What began as a straightforward rockumentary turns very, very dark after Altamont descends into violence and Meredith Hunter is killed.
  • Rockumentary: On of the more (in)famous ones.
  • Snuff Film: Meredith Hunter is killed on camera. The film even includes a scene where his corpse is zipped up and flown away in a helicopter as his hysterical girlfriend follows. In 1970, many film critics were very upset with the Maysles brothers for showing the death of Hunter in their movie. As were Hunter's family. The article in Rolling Stone describes the uncaring attitude of police and concert organizers, the Stones included. No one ever contacted the family to offer condolences or accept responsibility. By his family's account, Meredith Hunter was an educated, hard-working and courteous man... who was high on meth and waving a gun around.
  • A Storm Is Coming: In the song "Gimme Shelter", played over the closing credits over scenes of people arriving at Altamont, and appropriate considering the violence that ensued.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • A cheerfully insouciant Jagger at a press conference, saying that the free concert will "set an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave at large gatherings."
    • The Stones (especially Jagger) already had a reputation for an It's All About Me attitude and contempt for audiences, especially women fans and a reputation for Trolling them to the point of riots. It came back to bite them in the ass. note 
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: A white-faced Mick Jagger as he watches the footage of Meredith Hunter being stabbed to death. He gets up and leaves immediately after.
  • Titled After the Song: The Stones's live performance of the song "Gimme Shelter", which was on the Let It Bleed album that was released the day before the concert, plays over the closing credits.
  • Visual Innuendo: If it weren't enough that Tina Turner was orgasmically moaning during her performance of "I've Been Loving You Too Long", and singing about how her man has to give her what she needs, she fondles her microphone stand in a way that makes it look very, very phallic.