"Let it bleed, let it bleed, in sound and image, and in the hyped syntax of rock criticism.
The Rolling Stones are here, pursuing their grail, live on film, dead on film, drenched in the boreal red (read "rage") of a portable spotlight. (A gelatin mask over the face of fact.) They are phantoms that, in great, pointillist close-ups, when you squint your eyes, become the conceptualizations of yesterday's Pop mystery, which is, in reality—there is reality at the end of every trip—a memory collage of newspaper headlines, of rumored truths, of the titles of best-selling albums. Drug raps. Death embraced in a swimming pool. Sympathy for the devil. Also love. Love.
"Gonna get us a little satisfaction," sings Mick Jagger and generations scream their ecstasy. In this masochistic subculture, a threat is a promise. The lithe, graceful, tubular physique, wearing a mad Uncle Sam hat of red, silver, and blue stripes and stars (forever, for us) moves in and out of the focus of the camera, which cannot make up its mind whether it adores Mick Jagger or loathes him, whether it is an instrument of exploitation or a victim of it.
This is more or less the beginning of Gimme Shelter, the filmed record of the last leg of the Rolling Stones' 1969 American tour, a movie that can only be described adequately in the kind of awful Pop prose that stitches together instant contradictions. "An ugly, beautiful mass" is the way one man described the audience at an early Stones concert in the East, and this pretty much holds true for the film, which opened yesterday at the Plaza Theater. It's true, that is, if you can regard it simply as a neutral record of fact. I'm afraid I can't.
Although Gimme Shelter is photographed and edited with all the skill that I've admired in earlier "direct cinema" films by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, particularly Salesman, it is touched by the epic opportunism and insensitivity with which so much of the rock phenomenon has been promoted, and written about, and with which, I suspect, the climactic concert at Altamont was conceived.
If you remember, the Stones ended their tour, just one year ago, at the Altamont Speedway in Alameda County, California, with a "free" concert that was publicized as a way of their saying thank-you, America. It was a mess in every respect. Two locations declined the honor before the speedway was found. Approximately 300,000 people showed up, but the only security arrangements were those made with the Hell's Angels, who agreed to keep order for $500 worth of free beer. No less than four persons were killed, including one gun-carrying young man who was stabbed to death by an Angel on-camera.
As was the movie about the Woodstock festival, Gimme Shelter was a part of the event it recorded, being, in fact, a commissioned movie, the proceeds from which are to help the Stones pay the costs of the free concert (although they grossed a reported $1.5-million from the other, nonfree concerts on their tour). Thus, the movie that examines the Stones, and the Altamont manifestation, with such a cold eye, seems somehow to be examining itself.
The Maysles and Miss Zwerin have used the murder of Meredith Hunter to give shape to their film, which cuts back and forth between the chaotic preparations for Altamont and a couple of concerts that preceded it. There are flash-forwards showing the Stones watching a monitor of the Altamont events, after they happened. There also are flashbacks showing Melvin Belli, the San Francisco lawyer, who looks like Jim Backus on an ego trip and who shuns publicity wherever he can find it, negotiating for the use of Altamont while surrounded by reporters, who act as if they were covering the Paris talks.
There are occasional, not terribly revealing sequences showing the Stones at their leisure, punctuated by shots that zoom in on bizarre details, such as one Stone's snakeskin boot and another's cougar-tooth earring. When the Maysles finally get us to Altamont, they don't disappoint us. We see the Angels beating people with lead-tipped pool cues and then, finally, the murder, which is shown twice (once in slow motion).
There is quite a lot of music and performing in Gimme Shelter, some of it beautifully recorded, but it is not a concert film, like Woodstock. It is more like an end-of-the-world film, and I found it very depressing."
-Vincent Canby, December 7, 1970, The New York Times