The notorious 1969 Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway marked, according to cultural historians, the end of innocence for the counterculture revolution. The concert occurred only 4 months after Woodstock, the famous concert in NY (if you have not seen the Woodstock documentary on DVD and you love music, then you need to get the hell off this blog and buy the disc). The same organizers who set up Woodstock decided to set up another free concert out in California so they contacted the Stones and some other bands to play at the event. How could a free concert in the heart of hippie country not be massively successful and totally outdo Woodstock, right?

Although in hindsight the stupidity of this decision earns itself a Darwin Award, hiring the Hell’s Angels to provide security for the musicians while allowing them to drink and get high doing it probably sounded cool at the time. As you can imagine total, absolute mayhem occurred between the concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels. However, the image that created the most indelible impression on my mind is the moment when Mick Jagger realizes there is a guy in the audience who is pointing a gun at him. A moment later, a Hell’s Angel guy jumps up and stabs him repeatedly, killing him. By the way, you SEE all of this on film as did the Stones. Its a haunting image and it stays with you for a long time.

So why is this event regarded as the end of innocence for the counterculture movement? Up until then, the movement really was about peace and love. Until then, no one thought that by going to a rock concert, you could actually get stabbed or shot to death. You didn’t have metal detectors and weapons searches at concerts at that time and the world, despite the Vietnam War, was not considered a violent and scary place. This perception began to change with the Altamont concert.

Gimme Shelter contains many other memorable moments such as Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane pleading with the audience to calm down and stop the fighting. We see Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead arrive to perform, only to be told about the crowd problems and the Hell’s Angels. They decide to not perform and take off.

The documentary became part of a cinematic movement called Direct Cinema, which had become popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The Maysles Brothers, who directed this film, were prominent figures of this movement. Direct Cinema is about recording an event as it unfolds naturally and spontaneously. This is in contrast to using other documentary techniques where you interview the subject, reconstruct an event, and provide voiceover. One interesting little fact about the production of this film is that one of the camera operators was a young George Lucas.

I haven’t said anything about the subject of the film, The Rolling Stones. I happen to be a big fan of the band so it wasn’t difficult for me to enjoy the concert footage of their songs, especially Sympathy for the Devil, one of the greatest rock songs. However, even if you don’t care for the Stones, I think you will really enjoy watching Mick Jagger’s stage performance. Many great musicians cannot perform well on stage despite their ability to turn out great albums. Not so with Jagger and his Stones. His performances are mesmerizing and you can’t help but watch dumbstruck at how good he is. The film also graces us with an absolutely wonderful performance by a young Tina Turner, who pretty much masturbates with a microphone on stage. Great stuff!

Overall, what makes Gimme Shelter so great and easily one of the best music documentaries is how well it captures a bygone era. We get a clear glimpse of what it was like in the 60s, what people were like, and, most amazingly, we seem to witness a sudden transformation of all of it by a single event.

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