1970 Flashback: 'Gimme Shelter'

The Hell’s Angels create mayhem at the Altamont festival in Northern California in 1969.

Albert Maysles, who co-directed Gimme Shelter with his brother David and Charlotte Zwerin in 1970, passed away on Mar. 5. He was 88. Gimme Shelter is considered one of the great rock documentaries of all time.

It follows the Rolling Stones as they gear up a free concert at the Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969. The concert was originally scheduled to take place at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but was moved at the last minute to the East Bay location.

A who's who of California bands - the Grateful Dead; the Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Santana; and the Flying Burrito Brothers - were all on the bill (the Dead never played). But the event was marred by violence and has long been viewed as signaling the end of the '60s and the disintegration of the hippie culture, less than four months after Woodstock blew the lid off the emerging counterculture.

Albert Maysles (holding camera) with his brother David.

At the start of the film, the Stones are watching playbacks of the show. Clearly, all of the violence was caused by the Hell's Angels, who were supposed to serve as stage security but routinely throughout the show beat stoned revelers in front of the stage with pool cues. It was all captured by the Maysles. Lead Angel Sonny Barger says in a radio interview that the fans "started it" by "messing with our bikes." The Angels had driven into the middle of the crowd. "I'm no peace creep," he adds. "When they jumped on an Angel, they got hurt."

The film ominously depicts one act of violence committed by the Angels after another. The stage is overcrowded and at one point Marty Balin is bashed in the face during the Airplane's shortened set. The fans the Maysles zero in on are pretty deranged - tripping, naked, out of it, climbing on the stage. It's almost as if they were suggesting the fans somehow deserved the beatdowns. Finally, with the Stones on stage and during their performance of  "Under My Thumb," more commotion breaks out: a man in a green suit is seen brandishing a gun and is then stabbed by an Angel. Meredith Hunter died right there at Altamont, and because the Maysles were shooting, they caught the whole thing. It's the penultimate moment of the film.

Jagger tries to settle the crowd down but to no avail. His attempts - "Why are we fighting and what for?  and "Let's get it together" - fall on deaf ears. 

It's a sad spectacle to watch. No wonder the dreams and ideals of the '60s faded into oblivion during the '70s. You can blame poor concert planning, bad drugs and the Hell's Angels for that. But as a film, Gimme Shelter is unparalleled, riveting and depressing. Watch it in its entirety below.

Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.