Long live rock, I need it every night

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

At His Satanic Majesty's Request

Rock Club Movie Night: Gimme Shelter (1970--Criterion Edition)

I first saw this movie sometime in the early 1980s on local station WDCA 20, on a 12-inch Sony color television. The times they are a-certainly becoming different. Now, in 2006, Rock Club watched the remixed-and-remastered-by-Criterion DVD of the documentary Gimme Shelter. Gimme Shelter tells the story of the Rolling Stones and their ill-fated answer to Woodstock, Altamont. With Dolby sound and retouched color, the 35-year-old me appreciated this movie in a way that a 12-year-old could not.

Okay, I’ll throw it out there. This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while, and maybe one of the best I’ve ever seen. The presence of Dan and Erin made me check my gushing, but if I’m honest I have to say I was mesmerized by this movie. Much of the appeal, again, has to do with Criterion—if you plan on renting this, make sure you get the Criterion edition. Only Criterion will do. Got it?

The story of this movie, in my opinion, is something more elemental than “the Death of the 60s”, or something more big picture. In my mind, Gimme Shelter is a movie about what happens when 300,000 people converge upon a large open area with limited access roads, few toilets, and a very, very, very popular band playing at one end. The movie is almost like a Discovery Channel nature documentary. If you’ve ever been in a big crowd, and felt a surge, or a sway, or just some sweaty dude up on your back, when maybe for a second you thought, I really wish I weren’t in this crowd, and later I have fucking have to get some air, then you’ll feel that anxiety while you watch Gimme Shelter. It’s sickening to watch a crowd crush, either filmed, or live. I suppose for me it’s comparable to watching a movie with a shipwreck survivor bobbing in the water, knowing the sharks are underneath. A few things can happen in either situation, and all of them are bad.

That’s not to say there aren’t other stories in this film. First, the Rolling Stones, in 1969, were the most fantastic band on the planet. The Beatles had recorded all the music they would ever record, and Jagger and company were on top, but—and I say this as a committed Beatles fan—I don’t think it would have mattered if the Beatles were still together, because, as the live performances in this movie prove, no band could rock like the Rolling Stones in 1969. The movie opens with footage of the band at Madison Square Garden, and Jagger is electrifying. For those of us used to seeing him as a fucking old fart with bad knees, the 1969 Jagger is something else entirely—cool, talented, energetic, committed to the cause of rocking. The film is also an interesting look at the rest of the band, who refuse to speak at length. Charlie Watts, of all people, is the talkative one. We get a brief look at the short-lived Mick Taylor, whose place was taken by Ron Wood, whose place I understand has now been taken by some black guy. Wow, we’ve come so far since the 60s.

The movie, contrary to how I remembered it from my 1980s viewing, isn’t about just Altamont, either. There is ample footage of the Stones at Madison Square Garden, as well as a priceless look at the band recording “Wild Horses” at the Muscle Shoals, Alabama studio. Now, I know this song comes on classic rock radio all the time, and really conveys a sincerity that in these days is quite out of place, but put yourself in the way-back machine and check out 1969. The Stones had only formed in 1962, and had released their first album in 1963. This was not the era of iTunes and Limewire and allofMP3.com—it took a while for new sounds to spread. 1969 is only six years removed from 1963, but in terms of sound it may well have been light years. Think—it’s now 2006. What were we listening to in 2000? Probably shit that pretty much sounds just about like what we listen to now. Whereas, in 1969, everybody—the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, everybody—was new and exciting. And now, “Wild Horses” is no longer new and exciting, but it’s still an excellent song.

The Stones began their 1969 tour in support of their new album, Let It Bleed. They hadn’t been to America since 1966, and my, how things had changed. The movie features the band doing “Gimme Shelter”, “Love in Vain”, and “Live With Me” (outtakes only). This album is wonderful and I recommend every human on earth buy a copy immediately—not in the movie, but also fantastic songs, are “Midnight Rambler” and “Monkey Man”, the latter the soundtrack to Ray Liotta’s coke-fueled downfall in Goodfellas. And once again, the Criteria remix is superlative—the surround sound makes it seem as if you’re front-row, off to the left, a little back. Which is my preferred spot.

But you realize early on in this movie, the story is the crowd. The camera catches the audience, streaming onto the speedway grounds like ants. The close-in shots are fascinating—the color of the movie, the clothes people are wearing, the haircuts. It’s endlessly fascinating. I’ve now watched it twice since I’ve rented it and will likely give it a third viewing sometime in the near future.

If you don’t know the story of Altamont, the Hell’s Angels, Oakland Chapter, were hired to do security at the festival, which was the West Coast answer to Woodstock. The Angels were bad dudes and had a tendency towards violence, but let’s remember that they had done security at many Grateful Dead shows, and thus had experience in crowd control with a hippie audience. But the brute size of the crowd—and the movie includes aerial scenes of it, shot from a helicopter—is overwhelming.

From the start of the festival, the vibe is bad. Fights break out during the Flying Burrito Brothers set, followed by more scraps during the Jefferson Airplane. Actually, “scraps” underdoes it, as Airplane guitarist Marty Balin is knocked unconscious by an Angel. By the time the Stones appear, the atmosphere is angry and ominous. Not helped by the one-foot high stage, the Stones do their best to quell the violence, but the crowd by this point is a multi-cell organism, with a terrible imperative to get closer and closer to the stage. The movie shows countless fucking weirdos rushing the stage, pressing forward, undergoing really really bad acid trips and assuming talking to Mick will help them. From the start it was bad—a scene showing the Stones’ helicopter-borne arrival at Altamont, while the sun was shining and the music hadn’t even started, ends with some amped up freak rushing forward, slugging Jagger, and muttering “I hate you” as he’s dragged away. This is the California of Charles Manson and Jim Morrison, not the crunchy Woodstock Nation of upstate New York.

The Mansonite side of 1960s California certainly becomes latent in the movie when Meredith Hunter is murdered. Hunter’s stabbing, by a Hell’s Angel, is captured on film. It is difficult to watch, having come just after a short-lived lull in the fighting near the stage (watching Keith Richards trying to calm the crowd, and failing, and then turning his back and crossing himself is distressing). Hunter is glimpsed earlier in the movie, during a crowd shot—his lime green tuxedo jacket; his sweaty, twitchy amphetamine face, and big afro, stick in the mind. The stabbing unfolds with a predictability that is sickening. My hypothesis is that Hunter was pressed into the security line of Angels, took exception to their rough treatment, got his ass beat, came back with a gun, and that was that. See the Rolling Stones and get killed, I guess.

The killing is horrifying and the Stones absolutely rock out from this point on. It sounds callous, but to have called off the show at that point would certainly have provoked further violence, so they keep going—the crowd certainly backed off after the stabbing, allowing the show to take place. It’s a sick compromise, but it’s one more reason this film is great. The band plays more out of fear, than anything else, and they sound absolutely terrific.

Altamont exposed the weakness in the hippie argument that absolute freedom will lead to absolute bliss. There’s always some asshole that ruins things. You’ll find no apology or justification here for the behavior of the Hell’s Angels at Altamont, but there was something preordained about the Altamont violence, and Gimme Shelter’s genius, intentional or not, is in capturing that foreboding. The very idea that you could hold a free festival, with three days notice, featuring the biggest band in the world, now strikes us as ludicrous, on so many levels. 300,000 people were at Altamont—can you imagine? The reality is that mankind is simultaneously angel and animal, and sometimes circumstance is the only arbiter of which side wins out. Woodstock worked, Altamont didn’t—the devil was in the details, and that’s the only difference. For a lack of portable toilets and accessible parking, Altamont became a symbol of “the death of 1960s”. Only the demon that killed the 1960s didn’t die with its victim—11 dead in Cincinnati in 1979 (the Who), nine dead in Denmark in 2000 (Pearl Jam), 100 people in Rhode Island in 2003 (Great White), and countless more in between. In summary, this is a horror movie—next time you feel yourself in a crowd, move towards the back and make sure you know where the exits are.


Potsy said...

This movie was manic. One moment the big performances of the Rolling Stones leaves you feeling as high as Mick Jagger at a press conference, the next, the thuggery of the Hells Angels leaves you lowerer than the nipples of the acid-tripping naked fat chick barreling her way to the stage. It can definitely terrify you. And it's all Mick Jagger's fault. I blame it all on him. He couldn't keep his big lipped bigmouth shut. No. "We're gonna have a big party. It'll be free. In some park. Next Tuesday. Tell your friends. It'll be magical."
Nice going. This was the era, also, when Rock Stars began thinking that they were world leaders. "We can change the world. Yay. Come to the speedway. We'll figure it out there."

I would also like to point out the irony in how Lalapolooza developed as
the "Woodstock(s)" of the 1990s, and how that success spurned on the efforts for Woodstock II: Altamont Reloaded.

Good review, but points off for the following:
1. Mentioning me and Jumbo slice by our Christian names. (-10 points)
2. No research on the identity of the girl in the croqueted sweater. I have no idea how to spell "crow-shayed." (-3 points)
3. No picture of the band's lawyer (whom I believe is Don Rumsfeld's biological father, or uncle at a minimum). (-6 points).

That acid-tripping fat chick was like Godzilla or Frankenstein's Monster. Throwing her chubby arms out in front of her. Knocking people down. How do you stop her?

Jimbromski said...

I had already rambled on quite a bit, so I had to excise a planned mention of Marvin Belli, the Thurston Howell-esque lawyer. Look him up on Wikipedia--he was a part time actor, once played the villain on a Star Trek episode.

Also, regarding M Hunter's girlfriend, when I watched the movie again yesterday I discovered a new bit of awfulness--the scene where they're loading his body onto a medical helicopter, and she's crying, and some guy is consoling her, telling her the doctors will take care of Hunter. Meanwhile, we the viewers have already seen that Hunter has been pronounced dead. His girlfriend is calmed somewhat by the unnamed guy, but says one last thing before the movie cuts away--"But I can't hear his heart!" Terrible.

Jumbo Slice said...

Your enthusiam for the film is evident in the review. It really is remarkable they captured so much of a pivotal rock event. The Stones were brave, and smart, to let everything be shown. Reading your review makes me want to watch the film again when I'm not making smart ass remarks and inhaling pizza.

One note, Ron Wood is still in the band. Bill Wyman is the oen who left the band. the black guy is the bassist. He's been w/ them for a while, but isn't an official member.

Did you know that 1969 was also the year that Brain Jones, their original guitarist, died. A few years later Mick Taylor left the band on his own.

The most unreal part of the Altmount show was the reaction of Keith Richards. He was the only one who really seemed to get the magnitude of the disaster. Seeing Richards as the voice of reason was surprising considering his public image as a drug addled dolt.

Finally, Jagger is an amazing front man. I couldn't believe how he commanded the spotlight. No wonder Watts, Taylor, and Wyman were so quiet and seemenly timed. Probably a good make-up for a band.

I look forward to the next rock Club movie night.

Jumbo Slice said...

Being such a horrible typer (and speller), I really should proofread my comments before I press the "Publish" button.

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