Studio:The Criterion Collection Year: 1970 Cast: The Rolling Stones, Melvin Belli, Sam Cutler, Dick Carter, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jerry Garcia, Ike Turner, Tina Turner Director: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin Release Date: December 01, 2009 Rating: Not Rated for (language, nudity, drug use) Run Time: 01h:31m:44s Genre(s): documentary
A pair of outstanding DTS-HD Master Audio mixes make this BD release of this landmark 1970 documentary about the Stones ill-fated Altamont concert sound like you are there.
Movie Grade: A
DVD Grade: A
Hindsight is always 20/20, and I'll wager that the sketchy notion of having the Hell's Angels serve as stage security (their fee: all the beer they could drink) probably sounded much better than it actually turned out.
And if it weren't for the work of you-are-there filmmakers Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (and an army of camera operators) capturing it all for posterity subsequent generations might have eventually forgotten about what happened when bad decisions go horribly awry. The Rolling Stones staged a free concert at San Francisco's Altamont Speedway in December 1969 with the pool-cue swinging Angels turning what was originally intended as a peace-and-love "Woodstock West" into an ugly night that culminated in murder; an attack that occurred near the stage and was captured on film.
But the tragic disintegration of the well-intended free concert is just a part of what the whole of Gimme Shelter is really all about. In factˇwith the exception of the opening scene featuring of the grim faces of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts watching playback of the Altamont show and listening to a radio interview with one of the Hell's Angelsˇit isn't until about the half-way point of this 91 minute doc when we finally sees the start of the San Francisco show.
Under the direction of documentary legends the Maysles and Zwerin it is a fragmentary concert film (the live footage shot at Madison Square Garden and Altamont is wildly exhilarating) as well as an unusual peek behind the curtain of one of rock's most iconic bands, and the gyrations and machinations involved in staging such the show, courtesy of celebrated attorney Melvin Belli.
Easily one of the doc's finer moments occurs early onˇbefore the swirling miasma of the Altamont show becomes a beautiful car wreck that we all must look atˇwhen cameras follow the Stones to the famous (and cramped) Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama where instead of watching the band record such classics as Wild Horses we watch them listening to a final playback of the song, plopped around the control room in assorted states of deep, introspective thought. This was the sequence that stuck with a young teenaged me the most when I first saw Gimme Shelter on PBS back in the mid-1970s, and for reasons I could never fully explain I just found it all so insanely cool to see the band at such an intimate moment, especially with the way Watts delivers a small smirk of a smile when his drum part first kicks in.
The slowly percolating danger of the Altamont footage, initially festooned with a counter-culture pastiche of groovy cool drugs and love, builds with an exponential degree of tension as cameras capture the frequent pummeling of audience members by the Angels, who wield equal does of fists and pool cues as they tried to keep order the way they do.
During the Jefferson Airplane's set singer Marty Balin is knocked unconscious during a fracasˇleading to a surreal confrontation between the Airplane's Jack Casady and a Hell's Angelˇ and things get so out of hand that the Grateful Dead cancel their scheduled performance after getting a look at the situation. As the day progresses, things go from bad to worse, and when the Stones come on there are so many Angels wandering the stage (as well a dog) the band actually seems outnumbered and lost. Jagger and Keith Richards make impassioned pleas for the violence to stop, but at that point it is far too late. And then a young man with a gun is stabbed to death.
Rock and roll, by its very nature, is meant to be dangerous and rebellious. The events at Altamont fit that mold, and Gimme Shelter takes it all in, providing a testament to the power of music and a turbulent period in time that seemed to wildly alternate between peace and violence.
My mom used to love to refer to certain questionable situations as "an accident waiting to happen", and clearly Altamont was one of those. And I'll bet if she ever saw this doc back in the day I would never ever have been allowed anywhere near the countless rock concerts I attended as a teen, and for that I'm thankful. Charlotte Zwerin and the Maysles have made one for the ages with Gimme Shelter, a fascinating examination of not just rock and roll, but the dark side of what happens when the best intentions go wrong.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, delivered via an AVC encode culled from the same 16mm source material that was used for the 2000 release. The video transfer improvements over the previous release are marginalˇthough I'm hardly casting aspersions on the striking cleanup job done hereˇand it is layered deeply with all of the original heavy film grain intact. If we were simply basing an "upgrade or not" question on the image transfer I'd almost have to call it a draw. The good news is that the audio side of things is the tip in.
Two lossless DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are provided, one in 5.1 and the in 2.0, and this is where the mindblowing begins. Not so much for the spoken word segments, but it is the concert performances that are given entirely new life, to the point that I was constantly amazed at the clarity and separation, as well as the thick, beefy bottom end. The 5.1 provides a much more natural listening experience, and while still rich in .LFE, the 2.0 condenses it all into an even tighter package. I waffled back and forth between the two, sometimes finding the 2.0 track providing a more natural soundfield, dependent on the song.
Either way, both tracks are reason enough to upgrade, obviously providing your system can properly decode the DTS-HD Master Audio.
There's a wealth of great supplemental material here, and nearly all of it has been ported over from the previous Criterion SD release in 2000, beginning with a 40-page insert booklet featuring articles and essays by Amy Taubin, Stanley Booth, Georgia Bergman, Michael Lydon and Godfrey Cheshire. Absent is an article by Hell's Angel Sonny Barger, though some of his comments are included in some of the other pieces. A commentary from 2000 features Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin and soundman Stanley Goldstein, with the three were recorded separately and then neatly pieced together into a cohesive, largely scene-specific track.
1969 KSAN Radio Program takes the best parts of a four-hour post concert call-in show analyzing the whole scene, cemented by some revelatory input from Hell's Angel Sonny Barger; this a hip "you were there" sort of thing, and it's interesting to hear the raw comments and speculation. A pair of image galleries are included from photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower are included, as is nearly 20 minutes of outtakes, featuring a mix of concert footage and a couple backstage bits. Gone, however, for the Blu-Ray release is the band performing Little Queenie. Lastly, a dicey set of two theatrical trailers and 1 re-release trailer show just how impressive the restoration process done was for this film.