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CRITERION

MOVIE INFO

Director:
Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Cast:
The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman)
Writing Credits:
Various

Tagline:
The music that thrilled the world ... and the killing that stunned it!

Synopsis:
Called "the greatest rock film ever made," this landmark documentary follows the Rolling Stones on their notorious 1969 U.S. tour. When 300,000 members of the Love Generation collided with a few dozen Hell's Angels at San Francisco's Altamont Speedway, direct cinema pioneers David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin immortalized on film the bloody slash that transformed a decade's dreams into disillusionment.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$18.576 thousand on 1 screen.
Domestic Gross
$252.570 thousand.

MPAA:
Rated NR

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio:
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Subtitles:
English
Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:
None

Runtime: 91 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 12/1/2009

Bonus:
• Audio Commentary with Directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin and Collaborator Stanley Goldstein
• 1969 KSAN Broadcast
• Outtakes
• “Images from Altamont”
• Trailers


• Booklet


PURCHASE @ AMAZON.COM

EQUIPMENT
Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter (Criterion Collection) [Blu-Ray] (1970)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 24, 2009)

Though only three years had passed since their last American concert tour, the world that confronted the Rolling Stones in 1969 was substantially different than the one that existed in 1966. For one, their audiences in 1966 still mainly consisted of screaming teeny-boppers; performances had little to do with music since few could actually hear what the band played.

By 1969, the teeny-bopper aspect had disappeared and rock music had reached a much higher level of critical acceptance. Personally, I disagree with those who feel the music “matured” in that period since the Beatles released 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as I find much of that band’s output from 1963 through 1966 to be superior to the “classic” albums they later produced. However, the fact remains that due to such works, the genre changed from teen-oriented “noise” to more sophisticated and well-regarded material.

The Stones showed much greater progress in this regard. As far as I’m concerned, the Beatles changed between 1963-64 and the end of the decade, but it remains arguable whether or not they improved. The same case cannot be made for the differences in the Stones’ work. Early albums like England’s Greatest Hitmakers and 12X5 consisted mainly of covers of blues songs with very few original songs. Ironically, one of the Stones’ first hits was the Lennon-McCartney penned “I Wanna Be Your Man”; also sung by Ringo on With the Beatles, John and Paul specifically composed the tune for the Stones.

By the time of 1965’s Out of Our Heads, the Stones had started to emerge as more of a creative force. That album featured the song that remains their most famous: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. It also included a few covers, but for the first time, a Stones album consisted mainly of original numbers.

The band’s true breakthrough wouldn’t occur for another year, however, with 1966’s excellent Aftermath. For the first time, the Stones released an album that could truly stand with the best records produced by the Beatles, as “Aftermath” produced a roster of consistently fine songs, all of which were Jagger/Richards compositions. Aftermath remains one of their five best albums.

(By the way, as was the case with most of the Stones’ - and the Beatles’ - pre-1967 records, the track listings for the American and British releases differed radically, with the latter including more songs. In this case, we find “Paint It Black” only on the American version; the other ten songs also appear on the UK release. However, the latter features “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Out of Time”, “Take It or Leave It” and “What to Do”, none of which can be found on the US edition. These additions are made especially valuable since “Out of Time” is a long version that I don’t think exists anywhere else.)

Following Aftermath, the Stones put out the solid though not quite as good Between the Buttons in early 1967. The Stones always took some cues from the Beatles, so it’s not a surprise that their next album - late 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request - was a semi-psychedelic piece that tried to outdo Sgt. Pepper’s. Despite my reservations about the latter album, Request never came close to the level of the Beatles' piece. It featured a couple of good tunes like “2000 Light Years From Home” and “She’s a Rainbow”, but it seemed clear that the Stones’ scruffy hearts weren’t in this half-assed hippie drivel.

The violent upheaval of 1968 fit the Stones much better, and their work demonstrated this. From the excellent single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to the entirety of their sole album that year, Beggar’s Banquet, it was clear that the Stones were finally reaching full musical maturity. The album featured well-known classics like “Sympathy for the Devil”, “No Expectations” and “Street Fighting Man” plus gems like “Salt of the Earth” and “Stray Cat Blues”.

Even better was 1969’s follow-up, Let It Bleed. Although it should have been a transitional album - the record marked the final appearances of founding member Brian Jones, who was booted from the band in mid-1969 and died soon thereafter - it actually could be regarded as the Stones’ best work. It also mixes famous tunes like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, “Midnight Rambler” and “Gimme Shelter” plus a slew of killer songs like “Live With Me”, “You Got the Silver”, “Monkey Man” and “Let It Bleed”. Leave off the silly “Country Honk” - a Southern reworking of “Honky Tonk Women” - and you have a virtually perfect album; only perhaps 1972’s Exile on Main Street stands as a superior Stones release.

As such, this meant that the Stones were truly riding high as they began their first American tour in three years. That time period is nothing nowadays - the band went eight years between tours in the Eighties - but seemed like an eternity in the Sixties. After all, that was an era in which performers used to release more than one album a year as opposed to the three or four years between records typical for today’s stars.

1969 was a time in which the Stones were set to become the true kings of rock. The Beatles were essentially finished by the end of that year, though the plug wouldn’t finally be pulled until April 1970. I can’t say how obvious it was to the residents of that era that the Beatles really would never come together again, but the stage seemed prepped for the Stones nonetheless, and their triumphant return to the stage gave them a terrific opportunity to claim their crowns.

For the most part, all went as planned. Sell-out crowds greeted them with enthusiasm and respect not accorded on prior tours, and the band never sounded better; with the killer roster of tunes recorded since the last tour at their disposal, the set lists were tremendously solid and the Stones provided versions that regularly surpassed the studio renditions.

As a capper to this successful trek, the Stones decided to play a free festival in California as a “thank you” to their fans. Actually, the show was partially to make up for an apparent error in judgment; though invited to play, they skipped the prior summer’s festival at Woodstock and they seemed to want to regain some credibility through their own similar excursion. A few other acts like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were recruited to perform as well, and the Stones planned their own “Woodstock West”.

The show went through a variety of venue changes but ultimately ended up at a speedway in northern California. The location was named Altamont, and that title would soon enter the ranks of rock infamy, as succinctly detailed in Gimme Shelter, the excellent documentary about the Stones’ 1969 tour.

To say that the concert didn’t go as planned is an understatement, and the movie clearly details all of the problems that occurred. It was a haphazard set-up that suffered from too much naiveté and not enough legwork. I guess in the hippie-drippy world of the late Sixties, everyone put faith that all would end well and didn’t expend much energy into planning and preparation. Then as now, that’s a recipe for disaster, as the events at Altamont would prove.

To be fair, Woodstock really wasn’t much better run than Altamont, but its excesses were less overt. Due to a misunderstanding, the Stones took on the Hell’s Angels as a security corps, and that’s where things really went wrong. However, clouds hung over the concert from the start, as we see in Gimme Shelter. The film shows just how doomed the event was from virtually the initial thoughts, and clearly depicts the problems as they occurred. When Jagger steps off the helicopter and immediately - and bizarrely - is punched by some moron, you just want to see him hop back on the chopper and leave, because it’s clear this story won’t have a happy ending.

Shelter doesn’t wallow in the misery, but the events of Altamont pervade the film. Much of the movie shows concert footage from the majority of the tour, but these scenes are intercut with scenes of both the preparation for Altamont and shots of band members as they view the filmed material after completion of the tour. There are also some good bits of the band on the road and in the studio; Stones fans will be fascinated to hear a raw mix of “Wild Horses”, for example.

But even through the highs of the Stones’ excellent performances we still see the approaching storm clouds, and when the melee occurs, the movie reaches a higher level. Shelter depicts the events of December 6 1969 - another date that would live in infamy - with clarity and a strong level of objectivity but it also creates a palpable sense of tension and unrest.

From events that are comic - such as a well-meaning middle aged white woman who espouses civil rights with some less-than-politically-correct statements - to downright spooky - like the many shots of disturbed Angels - the makers of Shelter somehow managed to have their cameras in all of the right locations. When the volcano really erupts, we see what happened in all its scary clarity.

Without the events of Altamont, Gimme Shelter would have been a solid documentary; a band like the Stones couldn’t help but be interesting, especially during such a tumultuous time period. However, the nightmare of Altamont added an additional layer of powerful footage that takes the film from the level of compelling documentary to classic. It’s a movie that shouldn’t be missed; even if you aren’t very interested in the Stones, the picture stands as a strong piece of work.


The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B+/ Bonus B+

Gimme Shelter appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. For what it is - an inexpensively-made documentary shot 40 years ago - Gimme Shelter really looked quite good.

Focus was a concern during the film. Notice that I didn’t criticize “sharpness” per se, because that wasn’t the problem. Instead, most of the issues related to blurriness stemmed from the camerawork. Because of the manner in which the movie was filmed, a lot of shots took a few seconds to get into focus. I didn’t have any problem with this style; it resulted from a desire by the filmmakers to concentrate on the most compelling material, technical problems be damned. Nonetheless, it did mean that an unusually large portion of the movie appeared out of focus.

Noticeable differences in quality also occurred between the scenes shot indoors - most of which showed various members of the Stones (usually Mick and Charlie) as they watched footage - and those filmed at concerts. The latter tended to look better, which seemed surprising since the situations were less controlled.

Perhaps the lowered lighting of the arena stage hid some of the concerns more effectively, as the non-concert scenes showed a greater prevalence of print flaws. Grain was easily noticeable throughout the whole film but seemed especially heavy during the non-concert segments. Other print defects were surprisingly absent. At times, dirt congregated on the top and bottom of the frame; this happened mostly during Altamont footage, and I’d guess it’s a flaw that came with the negative. We also got some persistent thin vertical lines during “Love In Vain”. Otherwise, Criterion did a nice job of cleaning up this film.

Colors looked surprisingly good. Given the limitations of the film stocks, I expected them to be flat and bland, but they usually appeared quite nice. Indeed, the hues often were relatively bold and vivid; they appeared much better than I anticipated. Blacks were fairly solid and deep, but shadow detail was somewhat heavy. Since the filmmakers couldn’t control for lighting, this wasn’t a surprise, and the movie handled the problem fairly well.

The interior scenes came across as more problematic in general. They seemed softer above and beyond the focus concerns; these segments were somewhat flat and bland for the most part. Colors appeared more drab and lifeless, and blacks followed suit. While it’ll never be anyone’s demo Blu-ray, the image of Shelter was much more satisfying than I expected.

When I examined the audio of Gimme Shelter, I found a sparkling DTS-HD MA 5.1 remix that really worked well. All of the sonic improvements concerned the concert scenes. The audio for other segments appeared largely monaural, though some mild directional effects appeared; for example, a helicopter panned from center to right at one point. However, that kind of manipulation was fairly rare, and the non-concert parts usually stuck closely to the center channel.

The audio quality of those scenes also seemed pretty unspectacular but it was in keeping with similar efforts of the era. Dialogue and effects appeared clear and acceptably distinct but were fairly flat and thin. There’s not a whole lot of life to the sound in those segments.

On the other hand, the concert pieces were a completely different story. The music jumped to life quite effectively and provided very clear and vibrant sound. The stereo separation seemed excellent, as the guitars split nicely between the side channels and the entire package created a very three-dimensional image. No particular music came from the rears, but the surrounds bolstered the songs in such a way that I felt effectively engulfed by the songs. Otherwise the rears stuck to crowd noise. It’s a fine mix that really made the concert scenes vivid and lively.

Quality seemed very strong, though some variations occurred. At times the mix hit a few flat spots where Charlie’s cymbals may lose some sizzle or the guitars may wobble slightly, but these were fairly rare and clearly resulted from imperfections in the source material. Mick’s vocals occasionally were a little edgy as well, but as a whole, the music sounded bold and crisp. The track also boasted fine bass, and the dynamics seemed excellent.

The Altamont scenes displayed somewhat weaker music than the earlier segments. In particular, the guitars appeared fuzzier and more distorted. This edginess isn’t terrible, especially since a little rasp doesn’t really hurt this kind of music, but I did find the Altamont audio to appear less clear and clean.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the prior Criterion DVD? Audio was essentially a wash. I thought the lossless track would give the music more heft, but in truth, I felt the HD mix sounded about the same as the standard DTS version from the DVD.

On the other hand, the visuals showed a nice upgrade. Given the limitations of the source footage, I thought the Blu-ray and the DVD would show few differences, but I was wrong. Even with those inherent restrictions, the Blu-ray was noticeable tighter and livelier. It’s still not a particularly attractive film, but much of it looked very good – it certainly surpassed my expectations.

Expect almost all of the same supplements found on the earlier DVD. First comes an audio commentary from directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin plus collaborator Stanley Goldstein. As is typical of Criterion’s commentaries, all of the participants were recorded separately and their remarks later edited together. Some dislike this kind of track since it’s not as spontaneous and “screen-specific”, but I like it since the results are almost always more coherent and tight.

That’s the case here, as Criterion have created another terrific commentary. The participants provide a vivid picture of the creation of the film and show no qualms about offering frank details about the various concerns. A variety of issues are covered, but inevitably most of them relate to Altamont. Although that focus might seem a little narrower than is necessary, and I honestly would have liked to hear more of their impressions of the Stones in general, the comments are uniformly compelling and informative; it’s a great addition to the film.

Next we find some new concert footage from the Madison Square Garden shows. In 18 minutes and 28 seconds of Outtakes, we find performances of Chuck Berry’s “Carol” (misidentified as “Oh Carol” by Criterion) and the Reverend Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son”. In addition to the live shots, we also see Mick and Keith as they mix “Little Queenie” and also as they mingle and play backstage with Ike and Tina Turner. All of the clips are presented with only monaural sound, unfortunately, and the picture quality is rougher than what we see in the finished film, but I’m still very happy to have this addition.

One negative: the Blu-ray omits live shots of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie”. We see the mixing session but don’t watch the song on stage. I don’t know why this change occurred, but it’s a disappointment.

Another section provides about 69 minutes of excerpts from the KSAN Radio Broadcast the day after the Altamont show. Hosted by disc jockey Stefan Ponek - who also gives new introductions to the different subjects - we hear a broad overview of the day’s activities, with the obvious focus on the problems. Included in the participants are Stones’ road manager Sam Cutler and two Hell’s Angels. You can take in each of 12 different chapters individually or play the whole thing as one. It’s a solid piece that made for great listening.

At the end of that area, we find a “bonus”: audio footage of the Stones pre-tour press conference at New York’s Rainbow Room. Although all five members were present, almost all of the questions are aimed at Jagger. This segment lasts 20 minutes and is interesting, though the conference is too chaotic for it to make much sense.

Images from Altamont contains pictures taken by two different photographers: Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower. In Owens’ section we find 57 shots, while Sunflower’s area includes 31 snaps. These focus on the crowd but mix in a lot of good images of the bands as well. They also provoke the eternal question: why is it only fat and unattractive people go naked at concerts?

Under Trailers, we find three clips. There are two ads for the original theatrical release of Gimme Shelter plus one for its 2000 re-release.

Called “The Rolling Stones, Altamont and Gimme Shelter, the 40-page booklet includes writings from Mick’s former assistant Georgia Bergman, music writers Michael Lydon and Stanley Booth (who has written a few different books about the band) and film critics Amy Taubin and Godfrey Cheshire.

Of that group, I most enjoyed the pieces from Booth and Lydon. They provided the most coherent examination of the events and also featured the most interesting additional information. However, all of the articles merit examination, as each includes material that added to my knowledge of the film and the era depicted.

What does the Blu-ray lose from the DVD? As I mentioned, it drops the live footage of “Little Queenie”. It also omits an essay from Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger in the booklet, some filmographies, a “Restoration Demonstration” and a few ads for other Maysles films. I only really mind the loss of the “Queenie” shots, but it’s still too bad the Blu-ray drops anything from its predecessor.

Altamont remains one of the most ambiguous tragedies documented; even after more than 30 years, it seems impossible to truly mete out the lion’s share of the blame to any single party. Some want to pin it on the Stones, some on the crowd, some on the Hell’s Angels, but none of them alone caused all the problems.

Whatever preconceptions one may have about the events of December 6 1969 may not last after you watch Gimme Shelter, a film that documents part of the Stones’ American tour but which mainly focuses on Altamont. The movie displays the actions objectively and unambiguously but makes no moral judgments; it simply presents the evidence and leaves the viewer to decide. The Blu-ray offers relatively positive picture plus a fine audio mix and some solid supplements. After almost four decades, Gimme Shelter retains the power it possessed on the day of its release, and it comes highly recommended.

That goes for fans who already own the old Criterion DVD, as I think the Blu-ray will give them a nice upgrade. Unfortunately, it drops a few supplements, but it demonstrates a good step up in visual quality. This is probably about as good a release of Shelter as we’ll ever get.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5 Stars Number of Votes: 4
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main