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.