How ironic indeed that a free rock concert at the peak of the peace movement would be as mismanaged, chaotic, and violent as the Vietnam War itself, and that only the music of the Rolling Stones prevented it from being a true disaster area. Gimme Shelter, a slow-burn of impending doom, begins much as we would expect — concert footage, studio time, and the raw vanity of its young stars — but as the hasty, muddled preparations for the show at Altamont Speedway begin, we realize that there is no alternative to the madness. What could be expected, after all, from a charity show where 300,000 burnouts, nudists, scumbags, losers, dropouts, and — most importantly — Hell’s Angels, smashed together on a race track for a full day of fighting, fucking, tripping, and even a birth or two? And while only four people died (including two run over by a car while in their sleeping bags) – I say “only” because from casual shots of the crowd, at least 1,000 were experiencing drug overdoses — the attention-grabber is the murder captured onscreen: the stabbing death (by a member of the biker gang) of a young man (Meredith Hunter) who was, incontrovertibly, carrying a gun and rushing the stage. I had always heard about the infamous Altamont experience, but for some inexplicable reason, I was unaware that the dead man was armed. So while the Hell’s Angels were (and are) nasty, drunken bullies, it makes sense that the man responsible was later acquitted in court.
Directed by the legendary Maysles Brothers (Albert and David), Gimme Shelter is very similar to their other works — no narration, verite style, and utterly without commentary. We know that once the killing added an unforeseen drama to the film, it was edited to that end (the film begins with the Stones watching a cut of the film in the studio), but the footage still feels raw, a bit unfocused, and full of dread. The clips from a New York City concert are necessary to demonstrate that Altamont was the final gig of the tour, but they are, in a sense, filler. I’m a fan of the music, but this is far from a flattering portrait or typical trip that “humanizes” larger-than-life celebrities. When not on stage, Keith, Mick, and the gang are ciphers; preening and shamelessly self-involved, but devoid of any real interest. Take away their title as rock gods and we wouldn’t tolerate their antics for ten seconds. And I imagine the Maysles’ team feels the same way, although they always insist on a level of detachment no longer practiced in the non-fiction arena. This is not to say that the filmmakers had preternatural insight, but it seems remarkably fortuitous that their film would become the single cinematic document chronicling the sudden, violent end of the Sixties ethic. If the Manson murders demonstrated the perils of ill-conceived revolution and social revolt, the Altamont disaster proved beyond debate that if people cannot get along while listening to music, the entire concept of community would be forever shattered.
The concert itself — rife with fisticuffs, crowd surges, and arguably more drugs per square foot than anywhere else on earth at the time — featured a few other acts (we see the Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, and Tina Turner), but it was during the Stones’ set that things really got out of hand. Given the placement of the camera, it’s impossible to see a stage at all, as the fans are so close as to be on top of the band. Fans run about, speakers are knocked over and lifted into the audience, and in every corner of the frame a threat looms, waiting to be released. Despite desperate pleas to get along and “love each other as brothers and sisters” (could the futility of the hippie cult ever be more powerfully represented?), the violence never stopped, a surprise to no one given the substance abuse and bodyguards who themselves were chugging beer by the gallon. The concert should have been cancelled in the first hour (or never been held at all, given the piss-poor planning), but one can also imagine that had it been called off at any point, the crowd might have burned the joint down. Sure, a few peace signs flashed now and again, but this was the true face of the flower children for all the world to see: spoiled, self-indulgent creeps who couldn’t even be trusted to go to the bathroom in the proper place. In many ways, Altamont’s circus killed the dreams of the era more than Kent State, Cambodia, the Christmas bombing campaign, or Nixon’s re-election. With this kind of animalistic bullshit going down, who on earth would listen to their pleas for world peace? Or the simple notion of brotherhood?
As the film reaches its conclusion, and the weary, blitzed-out masses file back to their cars (and unending days and nights of unemployment and gonorrhea), the scene takes on the appearance of a death march. Who knows how many of the 300,000 knew of the murder — or would have even cared had it taken place right in front of them — but even they seem to realize that what they represent has been snuffed out in the time it took for a fried barbarian in a jean jacket to slam a blade into the back of a Negro. Demonstrations, marches, and “love-ins” continued to offend those with functioning brains for years to come, but the passion seemed forced, almost as if obligation had replaced spontaneous, organic social protest. Human beings really couldn’t be asked to cooperate in any meaningful way, and publicity was all anyone gave a damn about anyway. And perhaps, the Stones themselves were finished after Altamont; the bad boy rockers now eyewitnesses to, and participants in, a mammoth crime scene, with all notions of future charity swallowed whole by selfishness and death. They’d continue to make music and tour the globe, but it was now an impersonal machine that would never know when to quit, as putting down the instruments would mean a sudden end to generous paychecks. It really was “just a shot away”, and one that perhaps we wish Mick had taken, if not for that one Hell’s Angel.