There are plenty of documentaries that capture the end of life, of dreams, of careers; but how many have shown us the end of an era? I'm not talking about newsreel footage of something like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wall was simply symbolic, but the zeitgeist had changed in the Eastern bloc well before it. I mean a snapshot of a culture crumbling before your very eyes. The events of Altamont on December 6, 1969 could not have been predicted by anyone, yet, when you watch the film, it creeps up with a terrifying inevitability that turns this rockumentary into a suspense thriller.
The Maysles open the film with the Stones at Madison Square Garden earlier in '69, strutting out on the stage triumphantly to "Jumpin' Jack Flash." We then pull back to see the Stones also watching this footage. They're in the final stage of the documentary: reviewing the planned cut to see if they'll give it their approval. They wistfully smile at Jagger's stage banter, but something is amiss. We soon learn why; after this brief portion of footage, the Maysles play a radio broadcast aired shortly after the disastrous Altamont concert in which we hear the report of 4 dead (one murder, three accidental) and numerous injuries. Sonny Barger, the leader of the Hells Angels who provided "security" at the concert, calls in and blasts the Stones' ego and unruly crowds for the violence and stands by his boys.
The look on the Stones' faces go from nostalgic to morose over the course of the broadcast, and we begin to understand how the event has impacted them. The rest of the film plays out in chronological order: the Madison gig ends and the Stones, on top of the world, announce a free concert at Altamont Speedway without planning a thing beforehand. Now their managers have to deal with furious organizers who were barely contacted before the announcement and now have to lay down an actual deal. Though the organizers rage, it's the Stones who look foolish in all this; what right did they have to just announce a concert? Even here you can see the rampant, unchecked ego as their managers schmooze the organizers and deflect any blame they try to place on the band.
The set-up for the event builds, frankly, like a Hitchcock film. Roadies attempt to set up scaffolding and amps, but the already gathering crowds begin climbing them immediately. One of the technicians tries to warn Jagger, but he dismisses the man as "trying to tell him what to do." After the technician comes back a few times, he finally gets sick of Jagger's foppish dismissal and simply walks away.
To make matters worse, the Stones won't go on until nightfall, even though the supporting acts conclude mid-afternoon. The Flying Burrito Brothers start things up, and immediately it all goes to Hell. A great deal of the audience showed up a day in advance to get close to the stage, so they were worn out and stoned out of their skulls before the place was even rigged properly. Combined with weather fluctuations (hot during the day, cold at night), improper facilities and a lack of "freak-out" tents for people to be calmed during bad trips, the tragedy seems an inevitability. Some concert-goers start tussling with the Hell's Angels as soon as the Brothers strike up, and one of the band members pathetically calls out to the Angels to stop beating the zonked out fool, practically weeping "You don't have to do that!"
By the time the Stones take the stage, the crowd is at each other's throats. They strike up "Sympathy for the Devil," and the place goes off like a shot. People rush the stage and the Angels close in from the rafters. There's something infinitely striking about the Stones' most sinister tune causing such a riot; especially disturbing is the fact that during a song named "Sympathy for the Devil," a group called the Hell's Angels seem to materialize out of nowhere to protect the band. The Stones stop and restart, and by the time the song is finished they must ask for a doctor and an ambulance.
But it is their next number, "Under My Thumb," that the infamous stabbing of 18-year old Meredith Hunter occurred. A black man in a green suit so loud the blind could spot him, Hunter pulls a gun on the Angels during the song and is promptly stabbed by another biker. The Maysles replay this moment for the Stones as if it were the Zapruder film, freezing on Hunter's gun and then the knife plunging into his back.
The film up until this has a sinister, darkly funny irony, as it captures a mindset that the film eradicated. At the earlier Madison Square Garden gig, Ike & Tina open for the band, and it's impossible not to think of their then-secret domestic life as Tina seduces the crowd while Ike looks on coldly. The Altamont gig, though unsettling from the start, overflows with people so firmly disconnected by drugs that they'd become truly lost. The hippies started out as rebellious youths who came together to "free their minds" as it were to search for some higher plain of consciousness, or at least that's what they told us. But here they've simply lapsed into drug addictions, and they've lost politics to vague messages of love and the chance to see bands for free.
Consider the frail white woman who walks among the crowd raising money to "Free the Black Panthers." She doesn't really know what some members of the Panthers are being jailed for, but argues that they should be let go because (and this is a serious quote), "After all, they're only Negroes." Now, I know that was the polite term in the 60s, but the way she says the statement shows such a deep ignorance of, well, everything that you can't help but laugh at her. Likewise, there's something kind of amusing about hippies getting stoned, stripping nude, "dancing" (or whatever you call those frantic spasms), and then getting violent. It's something you expect to see in a Bunuel film, and suddenly it's happening in real life.
But for sheer wretchedness, nothing beats the bands pleading with the crowds for peace. Apart from that member of the Flying Burrito Brothers who whimpered at the Angels for beating an audience member, Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick gets big unintentional laughs when she breaks up a fight of her own, admonishing the Angels for their brutality but acknowledging to the crowd that, when they get unruly, the bands "need people like the Angels to keep people in line." These bands can sing and preach about peace and brotherhood all they want, but in the end the artists are clearly on a pedestal. Jagger too tries to calm the mob with pleas of "Brothers and Sisters! Why are we fighting?" that seem even more pretentious when you consider how little he cares for anyone but himself the entire time.
However, the ending saps any and all of the dark chuckles from the piece. The Stones refused to release an earlier doc called Cocksucker Blues because it depicted the more hedonistic aspects of the band (a.k.a. everything everyone already knew about the band even then), yet the sign off on this film, unquestionably a darker portrait of their shortcomings. I wondered why they would do such a thing, and came to the conclusion that, for the band, this is the closest they can come to absolution. Perhaps by putting the film out there someone will forgive them. I don't know why they'd think this, as the band come off like prima-donnas who allowed a crowd to become a mob just so they could make an entrance in style, but I think they made the right decision in the end. As they file out of the room, the camera freezes on Mick Jagger's ashen face before showing people leaving Altamont and cutting to the credits. If you look at Mick Jagger lately, he looks as alive as ever; sure, he looks like a skeleton re-animated through Dark Arts, but he's still vibrant. But the Mick we see in this freeze-frame looks closer to death than even the post-drugs elder Jagger ever has. It's a haunting image that could play in any horror film.
Gimme Shelter has been describe as the greatest rock and roll movie ever made--and it certainly is--but that neglects its much greater significance. Gimme Shelter premiered exactly one year after the events on Altamont, mere months after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rocked the counterculture, and it put the nail in the coffin of the 60s. It captures the hippie culture as it passes its crest and begins to crash ashore; in 1967 they became the dominant youth force in the country and, in the turbulent election of 1968, it seemed as if the lunatics had taken over the asylum (though the hippies were never as big as people make them out to be). But by 1969, with LBJ gone, the hippies ran out of a big issue and slowly slid into permanent drug hazes. Though Gimme Shelter is a comment on the egos and callousness of rock stars, it endures as a snapshot of this downfall of the counterculture, the moment where the 60s, a beast that was already dead, finally rotted until someone noticed the stench. For that reason Gimme Shelter belongs as much in a history classroom as it does the shelf of any rock aficionado, and it's one of the all-time most important documentaries ever made.