Welcome to Mick Jagger’s nightmare. That was a generation’s nightmare in ’69, when The Rolling Stones weren’t so much well-drilled stadium slappers as youth’s spokesgobs. So when their just-post- Woodstock free show at Altamont Speedway, California in December ’69 fell apart amid reckless under-organisation, violence and knife murder, the impact proved seismic.
David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s horribly gripping documentary gets the event’s measure, pinpointing unfurling catastrophe with tragic pride-before-a-fall inevitability. The Stones chicken-strut through a New York show, pouting invincibly. We watch the louche boys giving it some “je suis un rock star” backstage. In one interview, a cocky Jagger talks up high-falutin’ notions behind a proposed free gig: “We’re creating a microscopic society… which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave at large gatherings.” At which point you think, as you might, “Uh-oh”.
Then comes the Altamont tumble. Look at Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick: either she’d popped the brown acid or seen some nasty business cooking among the 300,000 freeloaders. By the time The Stones arrive, even Keef’s flares seem to be on a bum trip. Trouble churns during ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. “Everybody, be cool now,” Jagger pleads, but it’s clear he can’t contain the forces lurking. As the violent undercurrents of ‘Under My Thumb’ uncoil, you’re basically witnessing Mick’s lyrics coming home to roost, a concert movie becoming a horror show.
“Don’t let’s fuck it up, man,” Jagger drawls, with awful prescience, as Altamont screwed things up permanently for one young black man: Meredith Hunter, the 18-year-old in the crowd who got stabbed. We’re not in Woodstock anymore, baby.
The mellow DVD commentary reveals the Maysles’ early suspicion that this would be “more than a concert film”. And so it is: for all its kinetic pleasures, Scorsese’s Shine A Light can’t match the generationscale implosion implied here. To that end, the kicking disc includes dramatic post-event radio clips revealing just how anatomised the meltdown was. Blame is hard to place. Were The Stones at fault? Or the organisers, who only secured the site at the last minute? Or the Hells Angels, who were hired as security and plied with free beer for keeping people off the stage? Shelter doesn’t secure an answer but it trawls the moral murk for the right questions and presents them with the required era-jolting wallop.
Whatever the case, the film’s final shots of the dazed and confused crowd departing say much. In its unwilted capacity to shock and palpable sense of a culture shifting, Shelter gives potent testimony to tragedy. A guy got killed at a free gig. Costly, that. The times they were a-changing, again.
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