After becoming lost in rock psychedelica, the Rolling Stones returned to vivid blues and soul-based songs in a series of landmark albums released between 1968 and 1972 that included “Beggars Banquet” (1968), “Let It Bleed” (1969), “Sticky Fingers” (1971), and “Exile on Main St.” (1972).
Much like first generation punk in the following decade, the Stones cleared away the fog by re-grounding popular music in electric energy, sex, and the great grooves of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ compositions, along with covers of classic blues, soul, and country music songs.
While on tour in the U.S. in 1969, the Stones were approached by directors Albert and David Maysles – pioneers in direct cinema whose films tell their stories by recording and simply presenting events without voice over, narration or interviews – who offered to film their upcoming concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Maysles would then follow the Stones throughout their tour, filming recording sessions for “Sticky Fingers” at the famous studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and culminating in the Stones’ performance at the free concert near San Francisco that was organized by the Grateful Dead and other Bay-area bands. The resulting film, “Gimme Shelter” (1970), would become one of the greatest concert films ever made.
Free concerts were common at the time and the Altamont Speedway event was meant to be a sort of west-coast answer to Woodstock, which had occurred a few months earlier. In the film, we watch while numerous venues are negotiated and changed, with Altamont being settled on less than 24 hours in advance. Unlike most concerts where musicians perform on a stage high above the audience, at Altamont the speedway is surrounded by hills. As a result, the stage was placed down below where most people sat and very close to the ground.
Around 300,000 people came from San Francisco and all over California, overflowing Altamont and pressing down towards the stage which filled with concert goers. Fatefully, the Grateful Dead had arranged for members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club to secure the stage.
As acts performed that day, things degenerated through a mix of speed-laced LSD that was shared widely (and unknowingly) among members of the audience, which when taken with alcohol, caused many bad trips – including those by several members of the film crew.
Violent assaults by the Angels keeping order resulted in numerous concert-goers, and even performers, being severely beaten and ending in the death of a young black man caught on film. However, what brought on the violence and the events of day are not as simple as one might assume.
After filming was complete, the Maysles invited Charlotte Zwerin in as co-director to edit the footage and shaped the film into a powerful whole. In “Gimme Shelter,” we experience numerous contradictions that, in turn, surface issues of gender, sexuality, and race; deeply disturbing violence that became a symbol for the end of the idealistic 1960s; and some of the very best concert performances by one of the top rock groups of the time.
Come this Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. to both see and hear one of the greatest concert films ever made – the Rolling Stones in “Gimme Shelter.”