Having had the good fortune over the past few months to watch and review 'Monterey Pop', 'Woodstock,' and now 'Gimme Shelter', I see an unintended trilogy that documents the latter half of the 1960s.
Recorded by D.A. Pennebaker during the Summer of Love in 1967, 'Monterey Pop' is filled with promise and potential. Everyone gets along and has a great time enjoying different genres of music. The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience make their first live appearances on these shores, and Janis Joplin delivers a star-making performance.
In Michael Wadleigh’s 'Woodstock' the story gets more complicated. Two years later, people are continuing to drop out of society and turn onto new ideas, but things come to a head because not everyone grasps the ramifications of all they are embracing. The festival becomes a free event only because the demand far exceeds the organizers' capabilities as hundreds of thousands show up to Max Yasgur’s farm. Governor Nelson Rockefeller declares the region a disaster area in response. All the good times to be had contrast with a warning over the loud speakers against taking brown acid, revelations of a kid overdosing on heroin and another run over by a car, and the film's final scene of the aftermath as the farm is littered with garbage with a only a few people left to clean up.
The Criterion Collection's 'Gimme Shelter' by The Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin captures one of the defining moments that signaled that the "peace and love" '60s was over: the Altamont Speedway Free Festival headlined by The Rolling Stones has a notorious place in 60s history, alongside the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy and the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders.
Intended to capture the Stones' 1969 U.S. tour, the band is shown performing at Madison Square Garden, which is also captured and presented on the live album "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert;" in the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio; and working, along with attorney Melvin Belli, to make the Altamont concert happen. The band sounds pretty ragged live, especially at Altamont, but the fans don't care. It creates quite the contrast when hearing, along with lounging band members, the tenderness and perfect execution of 'Wild Horses'. Since the tragic conclusion of Altamont was so well known, the directors made a very interesting decision to shoot band members watching film footage on Steenbeck flatbed editors, capturing their reactions.
Once the film moves to the day of the event, chaos and violence make their presence known immediately as a young fan, out of the blue, punches Mick Jagger upon his arrival and knocks him down. The innocent escapades of skinny dipping and pot smoking are replaced by the disturbing scenes of a young, overweight, naked woman being led around by two clothed men, who are later seen squeezing her naked body to the front of the stage. Antics off screen were even more dangerous. Over the P.A. there's a request from the Red Cross for Ace bandages, gauze, and sponges before the show starts.
The most ominous attendees are the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, who were hired to work security in exchange for beer. These men are outlaws, not hippies, and they carry pool cues instead of flowers, which are frequently seen in use when people don't listen to them. There are skirmishes throughout the day that even spill onto the stage as Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin is knocked down while the band is performing. Hearing that musicians aren't safe appears to keep the Grateful Dead from taking the stage.
When the Stones take the stage, the battle between the Angels and the audience rages. As the melee appears before them, the band stops and Jagger beseeches everyone to get along. The Stones continue playing but unbeknownst to them, during 'Under My Thumb,' a young African American, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, is stabbed by a Hell's Angel and stomped by a group of them in reaction to his pulling out a gun. He is declared dead by the medical staff on site.
At the Steenbeck, Jagger is understandably stunned and has little reaction to the senseless death he witnessed. Hells Angel Alan Passaro was later tried for the murder in 1971, but the concert footage herein helped exonerate him. The truth is that everyone in attendance was responsible: the Angels, the promoters, the bands, the audience, even Hunter himself, who brought the gun and was revealed to be on methamphetamine at the time of his death. No one tried to make order out of the chaos that day. Instead, everyone just did their own thing and clashes naturally occurred. When left to their own devices, is this the reality underneath the ideas so many of the youth believed in then? Is this how the journey ends when so many ids run rampant and so many minds and bodies are pushed past their limits? In addition to Hunter, there were three accidental deaths reported at the concert. It's amazing there weren't more.
The source material was filmed in 16mm, so there's a heavy and consistent grain throughout. Scratches can be seen in the MSG performance and dirt is evident as Jagger watches the footage. Otherwise, there are no noticeable defects in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Although not vibrant, the colors are well rendered. Seen under many different light sources, flesh tones appear consistent. Blacks come in different variations, ranging from inky for black items to slight crush when there's darkness. The high definition helps to bring out unexpected details and creates sharp images. Facial features far back in crowds are identifiable as are the many knick-knacks in Belli's office. Textures of clothing and surroundings are all discernible. This is a very nice transfer given the original sources.
Audio comes in LPCM 2.0 and English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The dialogue comes out of the front center channel and is always understandable. Surrounds present the chaos of voices when amongst the crowd. The music also makes use of the surrounds. Although the Altamont performances sound distorted and flat due to the source, the studio tracks will have you reaching to turn up the volume, not because of balance issues, but because great rock 'n' roll needs to be played loud. All elements are, in fact, well balanced together and are presented with a good dynamic range. The subwoofer comes to life as the Angels' bikes provide rumble and menace as they roar into scene, and Bill Wynam’s bass has a stronger presence in the mix than usually heard.
The brilliance of 'Gimme Shelter' is that it provides answers to questions not intended to be asked, and reminds us that history is always being made, regardless of the scale. Thankfully, the cameras were rolling, and because The Maysles Brothers were practitioners of the Direct Cinema movement, it unfolded naturally without the taint of fabrication. The film is very well presented on this Blu-ray and is highly recommended.