Gimme Shelter

by Ben Travers

13 January 2010

An immaculate transfer for a forceful film, Gimme Shelter proves itself just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.
cover art

Gimme Shelter

Cast: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman

(Maysles Films)
US DVD: 1 Dec 2009

As a film, Gimme Shelter is as expertly crafted, impeccably shot, and ultimately engrossing as possible. The behind-the-scenes concert documentary follows The Rolling Stones during the last few stops of their 1969 North American tour, including the infamous free show at the Altamont Speedway near Oakland that drew more than 300,000 fans before ending in tragedy. 

The story is hard-hitting, and the subjects ideal for their onstage mannerisms, questionable decision-making, and stoic reflection on those crucial choices. However, as a blu-ray release from the prestigious folks at the Criterion Collection, Gimme Shelter lacks a few important elements needed to make this edition the historic monument it should be.

Before I get into the disc’s downsides, let me point out a few of its many positives. When it comes to what makes a documentary matter, in the end, it always comes back to two key elements: subject and timing. If the subject is relevant and the timing is right, it’s hard to mess up a doc. Both come together in Gimmie Shelter perfectly. Whether or not you are a die-hard Stones fan, the group’s allure is undeniable. Mick Jagger and his colorful wardrobe steal most of the screen time, but the rest of the band gets enough footage to leave an impression, especially the group’s co-founder Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts. 

All smiles and tomfoolery at first, the Stones put on a hell of a show even through the constraints of a recording. Many concert documentaries only appeal to the group’s most devoted followers. The live feel simply disappears when viewed in a home theatre. Not here. The Rolling Stones transcend the medium through exuberant performances and, obviously, tremendous music. After jubilantly tearing through such classics as “Jumpin Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction”, I defy anyone not to tap their feet and get into the spirit the band is consciously spreading.

Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin make the wise, unconventional decision to take advantage of this contagious charisma by showing their subjects their movie and recording the band’s reactions. Watching the band members respond to their own performances is absolutely captivating. Until the final shot, their expressions are limited. The band mates, Jagger especially, attempt to remain emotionless and detached. But once the gun is waved and the knife is pulled, even the stoic Stones’ members have to let it out, even if for a brief moment.

All of these factors make Gimme Shelter a truly unique documentary experience. From the esteemed subject to the notorious finale, the film is as important as any preserved by the good, nay, great people at The Criterion Collection. I use the term “great” to describe them because the work they do on this and every film given “the treatment” is just that: great. 

In fact, the great people working on this film have produced the most flawless pre-‘90s documentary footage I have ever seen.  Comparing the restored version to the original footage shown in the disc’s bonus features (in either the theatrical trailer or outtakes) is like comparing night and day. Colors are brighter. Grain and dust particles have been removed. Everything simply looks cleaner. The band doesn’t seem dated anymore, but alive and well. 

The sound has been boosted as well, but this is less shocking considering the many rereleases of Stones’ albums over the years. Still, it’s as if they are right there in front of us, just as they were 30 years ago for those hundreds of thousands of people.

Unfortunately, we never seem to travel forward in time, beyond1969. While one could argue it’s a positive the disc’s contents keep us in the moment for the film’s entirety and beyond, these same folks would also have to admit that a little more information couldn’t have hurt anything. The blu-ray edition’s special features are nothing to scoff at (a book of well-written essays, outtakes, and clips from a radio show recorded the day after the fateful concert), but what’s not there stands out almost as much as what is included. 

Now, before I decry this one omission on the part of the filmmakers, let me say that the film itself can stand just fine on its own two feet. But in today’s market of easily attainable immediate information, if additional material is going to be provided, it better be all encompassing. 

Here, it is not. The radio excerpts are intriguing and mostly even entertaining. The booklet of essays tucked inside the cover of the blu-ray case is enlightening thanks to the editor’s shrewd choice in expert authors. There is even a slideshow of striking photographs from two separate collections depicting the events at the Altamont Speedway. 

What’s missing, however, is any sort of retrospective on the events from the Stones themselves. The directors’ commentary is adequate, and the introductions to the radio clips recorded in 2000 are appreciated. But where is Jagger Where is Richards (or Richard, his credited name in the film’s opening titles)?  What does the now-legendary band have to say now, 30 years down the road? 

This concert has been called the death of the ‘60s era culture. It was Woodstock turned very, very ugly. How did this obviously epic event shape the rest of the band’s career?  We hear them sing or sample most of their hits during the documentary, which begs the question, “Did they lose their nerve or talent or anything after that ill-fated day?” Though I can understand if Mick and Keith and the rest of the band want to avoid discussing this any more than they already have, some acknowledgement of its effect (or lack thereof) on them has to at least be alluded to if not fully recognized on the special features of this disc. 

Nevertheless, Gimme Shelter is a nearly impeccable film completely capable of standing solo without explanation. It’s lively and exciting even after it hints towards the dark finale. The directors play on multiple levels simultaneously, putting forth a pure concert documentary as well as an essential historical document. As a film, it’s the complete package. If only the package it comes in could be just as complete.

Gimme Shelter


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