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By Stuart Swineford | April 27, 2002

“The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter,” the 1970 Maysles brothers documentary, briefly follows the Rolling Stones during their 1969 US tour. What might have been a fairly routine film consisting of concert footage, backstage antics and the like is quickly overshadowed by the horrific events that occurred at the Altamont Speedway during the Stones’ final show of the tour.
The first third of the film showcases (quite adeptly, I might add) the Stones’ Madison Square Garden show and features some decent camera work and a mish-mash of Stones favorites. A fairly erotic Ike and Tina Turner number is thrown in for good measure and those who were living under a rock or were too young to have experienced this era of rock and roll are treated to a lesson in “why these bands were so popular”. They were not only talented and wrote great songs but exuded sex appeal and charisma in spades. The Maysles craft a beautiful and exotic look at this powerful music genre in these early scenes that truly inspires.
Moving along to act two… This would be a good time to put the kids to bed, as “Shelter” is about to turn ugly. Real ugly. The free concert at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco began as a somewhat ill-conceived venture that had aspirations of becoming the “second” Woodstock but turned into a mess of somewhat epic proportions as last minute venue changes, a drug-fueled audience, the organizers’ willingness to treat the event as an “experiment” and the Hell’s Angels combine with tragic effect.
The Maysles (and more specifically, editor Charlotte Zwerin) work wonders to build tension as the concert unfolds. Angels are seen swilling copious amounts of booze and assert their authority early on as the stage is being assembled and performers begin to arrive. The audience itself is shown in less-than-glowing light as many members have dipped a bit too deeply into their own intoxicant well and have clearly not stayed away from the brown acid. Some excellent footage has been shot here and the anxiety meter is rising steadily as these two worlds are set to collide.
And collide they do, with escalating violence despite pleas from performers (The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane and the Stones) and organizers alike. The Angels have pretty much taken over at this point and, as night falls and the Stones come out, the worst is yet to come. The crowd presses towards the stage, the Angels continue their attacks, a gun is brandished and a concert-goer ends up stabbed to death mere feet from the front of the stage. This is riveting stuff to say the least.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words and the Maysles definitely take this to the extreme in the production of “Gimme Shelter”. What could have devolved into a fairly mundane interview film was left as a pure and unflinching look into the events of December 1969 at the Altamont Speedway. To interesting effect, the Maysles rely heavily on “reaction” shots of the Stones as they preview raw footage of the film before editing which produces a stronger and more intimate look into the minds of those who were there before they are able to craft statements and “interview snippets” regarding the experience and the events that unfolded at Altamont. A truly “right place at the right time” film, “Gimme Shelter” captures the moment that marked the end of an era and the beginning of yet another.
VIDEO ^ Shown in 1.33:1 with an outstanding transfer (given the original stock from which the material was drawn), the video for “Gimme Shelter” was brought to life for the re-release via new transfer techniques outlined and vividly displayed in a “Restoration Demonstration” section of the DVD. The original film stock was fairly shoddy and this “featurette” showed the hurdles that the production company jumped to bring a stronger film to the DVD. Their efforts are greatly appreciated as the transfer still suffers a bit but the results are, in fact, quite astounding. Criterion has included this type of demonstration on many or their restored films and they are a welcome addition to any film.
AUDIO ^ Again, the audio for “Gimme Shelter” has been completely remastered from the original sources to excellent effect. The presentation is much stronger than the original audio delivered with the stock footage and the comparison is aptly displayed in the “Restoration Demonstration”. Several audio transfers are available (all in English): Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 and the new DTS 5.1. The commentary track has been recorded in Dolby Digital 2.0 as well. In a word, the audio transfer is excellent.
EXTRAS ^ As in most of Criterion’s releases, “Gimme Shelter” is delivered to DVD with a fair number of extras that bring strong value to the disc and help support a strong film in its own right.
Commentary by Directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin and collaborator Stanley Goldstein ^ Commentaries are fairly hit or miss as anyone who has taken the time to review this type of material can attest and the commentary track for “Shelter” falls firmly in the “hit” column with an excellent combination of technical and background information touched upon by three of the main players from “Shelter’s” crew. Informative, poignant commentary is included here with many anecdotal stories inserted among “how the film came to be” style commentary. Well worth the time spent, to say the least. Commentaries should provide support for the material shown and the “Shelter” track certainly accomplishes this task without glaring gaps found in many other tracks of this nature.
1969 KSAN Radio Broadcast ^ Nearly four hours of radio broadcast is included here with interviews and phone-in conversation from those that attended the show included. Originally aired the day after the tragic Altamont show, this special feature provides excellent supporting information about the impact this event had on the lives of those in attendance as well as a generation as a whole.
Outtakes ^ Though many of the outtakes are a bit on the “throw away” side (hence, they were “outtakes”), they do offer some additional fun and games to an already excellent production. Several items are included here including: “Mixing of ‘Little Queenie'”, “Little Queenie”, “Oh Carol”, “Prodigal Son”, and an interesting piece, “Backstage with Mick, Ike and Tina”. If nothing else, these highlight the efforts made in the restoration process (none received the same treatment as the original film and suffer remarkably).
Images from Altamont ^ This section includes still image galleries from noted photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower shot at the Altamont show and features some truly beautiful and dramatic imagery that is a welcome addition to the disc.
Restoration Demonstration ^ Restoration of older film is a newer technology that continues to advance and Criterion has graciously included a short demonstration of the techniques used to bring the re-release of “Gimme Shelter” to life. Both video and audio techniques are explained and before/after demonstrations included. This section is both interesting and informative and is well worth investigation by anyone who truly considers themselves a film fan.
Other Extras ^ Other extras include: A “Maysles Film Trailers” section with two original release “Shelter” trailers, one re-release trailer and trailers from two of the Maysles’ other films, “Salesman” and “Grey Gardens” and “Filmography” section highlighting the careers of Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.
Overall DVD * * * * ^ Film * * * * ^ Video * * * 1/2 ^ Audio * * * * ^ Extras * * * 1/2

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