Discussing Gimme Shelter runs the risk of not discussing Gimme Shelter.
The disaster that was the free concert held at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969 – enough of a generational buzzkill that it's often held up as the de facto end of the Sixties – has been picked apart so much over the past four decades that that just the very word "Altamont" remains shorthand for impending dread and catastrophe.
And it was a catastrophe; you can watch it happening. The Stones promise a free concert without actually hammering out such details as where it will happen. They're still looking even as they're told that a hundred thousand kids are already on their way to San Francisco. One venue pulls out because the guy in charge senses that there are going to be serious problems. Someone else offers Altamont Speedway for the publicity, little realizing that, boy, will he still have that publicity 40 years later. And so forth, until the concert begins and the dominoes start to fall, as may have been inevitable once hippies and Hell's Angels were brought together en masse.
So we all know about Altamont. That's history. But what about the movie? In a pre-Altamont press conference about halfway through, Mick Jagger says that the event isn't about the concert, that the concert is just going to be the excuse for whatever happens when everybody shows up.
In a similar way, Gimme Shelter isn't a concert film, except insofar as the central event is a concert and the central figures musicians. The music is largely incidental; it's omnipresent and inextricably linked to the tragic chaos, but the cameras are largely trained on the crowd, rather than the stage.
Jefferson Airplane get a little more attention, but that's only because "The Other Side Of This Life" is interrupted twice by the Hell's Angels beating folks onstage (one of whom is Airplane singer Marty Balin, prompting Paul Kantner to shift into full hippie-snark mode). Even when the Stones are playing "Sympathy For The Devil" and especially the fateful "Under My Thumb," it's not the performances that are important.
(PLEASE NOTE: The Jefferson Airplane clip is not safe for work, as a result of the fact that sometimes, in the '60s, ladies liked to not wear tops, so much. Or bras, so much. And that made it into the movie at one point, so buyer beware.)
It's also not an investigation. Even when, in an echo of Blow-Up, the filmmakers freeze the image and call the Stones' attention to the outline of a gun in Meredith Hunter's hand in the instant before he's stabbed, there's none of the urgency that you'd expect from a probing attempt at untangling what happened in the chaos.
So what is Gimme Shelter about, then? As best as I can tell, it's about witnessing. Throughout the film, the Stones are shown watching themselves (in concert footage and press conferences) and listening to themselves (in playback while recording what will become Sticky Fingers). At one point, we're even watching them watching themselves listening to themselves.
Early on, the filmmakers ask Jagger for his reaction to Hunter's death, and all he can do is mutter a few variations on "It was horrible." There's probably not anything else to say, really; he looks shell-shocked, as he should be. But it seems awfully important that that this sequence is at the start of Gimme Shelter and not the end. The central fact of Altamont is laid out right from the start, rather than unfolding as the film progresses, and that turns every subsequent scene where the Stones are parked in front of video monitor into a confrontation with what they've wrought.
It'd be easy to read all of this as anti-rock 'n' roll propaganda, a testimony to the evil that the music and its purveyors loose into society. But that doesn't account for the fact that directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were chronicling the lead-up to Altamont well before it went irreversibly wrong. And the use of their footage in last fall's rerelease of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (the live album recorded at the Madison Square Garden concerts shown here) suggests that they would have been happy to simply capture one of the biggest bands in the world in its onstage element.
But that's not the movie they found themselves with. Faced with a series of uncomfortable truths, they not only showed the world what happened and how, they made sure the participants themselves didn't look away. As DJ Stefan Ponek asks of his listeners who were at Altamont, "We want to know what you saw."