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In December of 1969, four months after Woodstock, the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane gave a free concert in Northern California, east of Oakland at Altamont Speedway. About 300,000 people came, and the organizers put Hell's Angels in charge of security around the stage. Armed with pool cues and knifes, Angels spent the concert beating up spectators, killing at least one. The film intercuts performances, violence, Grace Slick and Mick Jagger's attempts to cool things down, close-ups of young listeners (dancing, drugged, or suffering Angel shock), and a look at the Stones later as they watch concert footage and reflect on what happened. Written by
October 1969 marked a month of tragedy for rock and roll. The Rolling Stones were on their US tour when they stopped to play a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. It was a concert event that was supposed to be the Woodstock of the West, but it ended up being just the opposite. Hell's Angels were hired for security and, as the chaos of the show ascended, the Angels became more and more violent towards the crowd until the night ended in the stabbing and murdering of at least one of the concert goers. Gimme Shelter is the documentary which focuses on this tragic occurrence in brutal detail. The film mixes concert footage of the Rolling Stones, footage of the night at Altamont, as well as the band watching and reflecting on that terrible night. It's an extraordinary and harrowing film which will shake you to your core as you watch the raw, unedited footage taken at Altamont and the unending brutality which seems so unnecessary and so easily preventable. It's a remarkably disturbing experience to watch Gimme Shelter.
I honestly believe it was a stroke of genius to make this film so simple. There was no need to tamper with the Altamont footage or add anything extraneous to it. Gimme Shelter is perfect in the way it just shows us all of the actual footage from the concert, as well as leading up to the concert. There's no narration, no extra pictures or clips. It is just the footage put together in a way that details that terrible night in the straightest way possible. There could not be a more thorough account of the events at Altamont. This is the finest way to view something this out of the ordinary. The footage we watch in Gimme Shelter is stunning and unforgettable. It's safe to assume that 99% of the audience at that show was on acid, and the results are amazing to watch. There is an incredible amount of footage of people having wild acid trips, doing all sorts of bizarre things. It is amusing to watch at first, but quickly becomes deadly when Hell's Angels are introduced into the equation. Thus we have a scenario that is nerve racking to witness unfold and we are then filled with immense anxiety and dread as the situation grows into the tragedy it morphed into by the end of the night.
Of course, what makes Gimme Shelter more than just a simple reflection on the tragedy at Altamont Speedway is the footage of the Rolling Stones watching the Altamont footage and reflecting on it all. The shock and awe is very obvious in their reactions and hearing what they have to say about it is fascinating. They don't say much about it because of all the shock, but they say enough and they display enough body language to convey their loss for words at this event and how horrified they are that something like this had to happen under their watch. This is possibly the saddest aspect of the entire situation. The fact that someone was murdered is horrific enough, but the fact that it had to happen in the name of rock and roll is deafeningly sad. It is painful to watch the messages of peace and love flourish in that concert audience, only to be violently contrasted by the over reactions of Hell's Angels. It's a sickening occurrence that seems to evoke more innate sadness than anger. It's terrible to watch but it makes Gimme Shelter one of the most powerful and provocative documentaries you will ever see. This film is an incredible experience that you will not soon forget.
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