There is something about 1970 and music related movies. I believe “Gimme Shelter” is the third one if we include “Performance”. In fact, with “Performance and “Gimme Shelter” I got two Mick Jagger movies back to back.
Whereas Mick Jagger (the lead singer of The Rolling Stones, in case you have been deserted on a small island for the past hundred years) was merely an actor, albeit with a few songs, in ”Performance”, “Gimme Shelter” is about the real Mick Jagger and the band. Or is it? The further you get into this music feature the more you realize that this is not so much about The Rolling Stones as about the disastrous concert at Altamont near San Francisco, 1969.
We see The Rolling Stones in the editing room watching footage for a video, presumably the one we are watching. There are some clips to songs from an earlier concert in a traditional style, but eventually these disappear. The footage the Stones are watching is from the planning of their free concert at Altamont. Some lawyers are involved. Landowners back out until eventually a speedway racetrack is settled upon. Infrastructure is arranged apparently at breakneck speed and as this is a free concert, nothing is supposed to cost anything. The whole thing looks rather haphazard.
Eventually we get to Altamont itself and of course it is chaos, but the full extent of the chaos only becomes apparent as the bands start playing. Nobody expected in excess of 300.000 people. The stage and facilities are way too small and, most crucially some idiot decided it was a good idea to hire Hells Angels as security guards. Fights break out constantly, always involving the Hells Angels. One of the singers of Jefferson Airplane gets knocked down by the Angels. Some bands do not want to play and when the Stones try playing their songs they are constantly interrupted by fights or people wandering around on the stage.
The whole thing climax when a guy is stabbed to death by the Angels. The Stones are watching this on the film in the editing room and are shocked speechless.
While the Angels clearly were involved in a lot of the trouble, there is also a sense of selfish ruthlessness in the audience itself. A lot of the audience we see are seriously stoned and seem to see the concert as a ticket to behave as stupid and egoistic as possible. The parallel to Woodstock is obvious. There the film gave the impression of a totally different atmosphere. A friendly chaos as opposed to the unfriendly one at Altamont.
Back in the nineties I went to a lot of music festivals and experienced both kinds. The unpleasant ones got very unpleasant indeed. A Pearl Jam concert at Roskilde I left before it even started because I felt unsafe and sure enough, a few years later when Pearl Jam played again several people got crushed to death during their concert. Not cool.
“Gimme Shelter” does have a lot of music with The Rolling Stones and they do get around a lot of their famous songs. If you are into their music there is that. I am not a Rolling Stones fan so I was rather indifferent to the music. For me this movie was all about the horror playing out in Altamont. The total anti climax to Woodstock. I got a feeling the Stones never again gave a free concert…
Anecdote: George Lucas was a camera operator at Altamont. However, as his camera broke down his footage was not used.