Gimme Shelter – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #99 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

February 20, 2010 by  

One of the most important music documentaries of all time.  “Gimme Shelter” is a time capsule documenting the most tragic music festival in American history. A magnificent Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection!  Highly recommended!

© 1970, 1991, 2000 Maysles Films, Inc.  2009 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.


DURATION: 91 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio), Color, Stereo


RELEASE DATE: December 1, 2009

Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Executive Producer: Ronald Schneider

Associate Producer: Porter Bibb

Cinematography by The Maysles Brothers, Gary Weis

Edited by Joanne Burke, Robert Farren, Ellen Giffard, Kent McFinney


The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger

Charlie Watts

Keith Richards

Mick Taylor

Bill Wyman

Marty Balin

Sonny Barger

Melvin Belli

Dick Carter

Jack Casady

Mike Clarke

Sam Cutler

Spencer Dryden

Chris Hillman

John Haymes

Paul Katner

Grace Slick

Frank Terry

Pete Kleinow

Bernie Leadon

Gram Parsons

Called the greatest rock film ever made, this landmark documentary follows the Rolling Stones on their notorious 1969 U.S. tour. When three hundred thousand members of the Love Generation collided with a few dozen Hells Angels at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway, Direct Cinema pioneers David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were there to immortalize on film the bloody slash that transformed a decade’s dreams into disillusionment.

One of the most important music documentaries of all time.  “Gimme Shelter” is a time capsule documenting the most tragic music festival in American history. A magnificent Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection!

John Burks of Rolling Stone Magazine called the free concert at Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969 as “Rock & Roll’s Worst Day”.  Many performers called it the end of the peace movement.

With the success of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in Woodstock, New York in August 1969, many people have wanted to see a concert in the West.  So, what better to have it in California with a free concert to be held on a Saturday, December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. With an amazing lineup which would include the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills & Nash and rock n’ roll’s most electrifying band, the Rolling Stones.

And the footage would be recorded as part of a documentary on the Rolling Stones 1969 US Tour directed by Albert and David Maysles  (known for their work in 1968 for “Salesman” and later in 1975 for “Grey Gardens”) and Charlotte Zwerin.  Of course, the documentary known as “Gimme Shelter” would become more than just a documentary about the Rolling Stones, it would be a documentary that would capture the Rolling Stones performing at the Altamont Speedway concert.  A concert unlike Woodstock which was peace, love and rock n’ roll, the free concert at Altamont was stained with violence including a homicide.

“Gimme Shelter” received restoration for it’s 30th year anniversary in 2000 and in 2009, the film was given its High Definition treatment by the Criterion Collection as it was released on Blu-ray.

The film would feature the Rolling Stones as they viewed footage from the free concert and then the viewer would see band member’s reactions to what happened that night but also hear from callers to a radio station of what transpired at the event.  We do get to see some good with the Rolling Stones performing at Madison Square Garden and working on the recording of “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” in Alabama.

And then we see footage of how the free concert was planned, the negotiation of having the concert at the Altamont Speedway by attorney Melvin Belli and then to the actual day of the concert at the Altamont Speedway featuring hippies/flower children galore.  Some who are excited, to some who are just drugged out and their minds are just way out there. Things that were not so surprising as similar activity has been seen at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival from 1967 and months earlier at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in August 1969.

But unlike Woodstock, Altamont was unorganized.  Where 100,000 were expected, there were over 300,000 people who showed up.

A concert in which the motorcycle gang known as The Hells Angels would be hired for $500 worth of beer to protect the stage and the equipment since there was no security or barriers in place.  With the excited (and stoned out) crowd pushing towards the stage, the Hells Angels (which many were drunk) were ready to defend their area and were quick to use their pool cue sticks on the audience.

What we see from this 1970 documentary is music festival that featured little peace and just a cloud of violence in which bands such as the Burrito Brothers and the Jefferson Starship were unable to play.  As a matter of fact, Jefferson Starship vocalist Marty Balin was knocked out by the Hells Angels and the altercation and fights are featured in the documentary.   Even organizers and bands who were slotted to perform such as The Grateful Dead were quick to make the decision not to play after they heard of the incident with Jefferson Starship.

As we see how chaotic the events transpired at the event, we then see the Rolling Stones (the final band of the night) perform and try to perform but the violence was just too chaotic and we eventually see footage of the death of Meredith Hunter.  An audience member who was high on meth at the time and tried to pull out a gun but was stopped by his girlfriend, but during the chaos, he was stabbed by a Hells Angel member and then kicked and beaten by the gang members.

The concert ended the ’60s and it was the end of the Hippie-era, a decade that was supposed to be about peace and love was a decade of the death of JFK, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War and unfortunately, a decade that could not end peacefully for a music event.


“Gimme Shelter” is presented in 1080p High Definition with its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1:33:1.  According to Criterion, the new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from the 16mm camera original and the 35mm duplicate negative under the supervision of co-director Albert Maysles.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.

Although I have never owned the standard DVD version of “Gimme Shelter”, I would assume that this high definition release is the definitive release yet.  There is a good amount of grain on the film but personally, this is literally a time capsule of a significant event in American music history.  It’s not a pristine video transfer but again, considering the original source, I felt that “Gimme Shelter” looked very good.


As for the audio for “Gimme Shelter”, according to the Criterion Collection, the soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic multitracks.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  You get two lossless audio tracks.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1  and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.

I compared the two soundtrack and I felt the 5.1 track, the audience is more prominent and I just felt the electric guitars, percussion and bass were more punchy and clear.  Especially Mick Jagger’s vocals during the performance scenes but the 2.0 track is no slouch either for those who prefer to have that stereo option.  The soundtrack sounds great coming from the front channels as well.  So, it really comes down to audio preference.  I’m more the immersive soundscape audiophile who prefers hearing sounds all around than just the front channel.

Subtitles are in English SDH.


“Gimme Shelter – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #99” comes with the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary – Audio commentary featuring directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin and collaborator Stanley Goldstein.  This is the same commentary from the 2000 DVD release.
  • 1969 KSAN Radio Broadcast – (30 minutes) Audio excerpts from KSAN Radio’s Altamont wrap-up, recorded December 7, 1969, with introductions by then DJ Stefan Ponek for the 2000 edition.  Expect to hear comments from Emmet Grogan, leader of San Francisco’s counterculture movement, Sonny Barger, head of the Oakland Chapter of the Hells Angels at that time.
  • Outtakes – (19 minutes) Performances by the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden in 1969, including “Oh Carol” and “Prodigal Son,” plus backstage outtakes and footage of the band mixing “Little Queenie”.  Backstage includes Mick Jagger jamming with Ike and Tina Turner at Madison Square Garden.
  • Images from Altamont – Altamont stills gallery, featuring the work of renowned photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower.  Awesome still images from the event.
  • Trailers – Two theatrical trailers plus the re-release trailers.


  • 40-Page Booklet – Featuring the following essays: “Rock-and-Roll Zapruder” by Amy Taubin, “The True Adventures of Altamont” by Stanley Booth (who traveled with the Rolling Stones and gives his insight and experience at the Altamont event), “Snapshots from the Road” by Georgia Bergman (who was the personal assistant of Mick Jagger from 1967-1972), “The Decade that Spawned Altamont” by Michael Lydon, “The ‘Demonic Charisma’ of Gimme Shelter” by Godfrey Cheshire (film critic/filmmaker) and a big fan of the film, who challenges Pauline Kael’s 1970 review.

This is probably the first Criterion Blu-ray which I watched once, watched it again and days later, watched it once again.  I suppose that like some people who have re-watched the Zapruder JFK assassination footage or the video footage from momentous times that were significant, you just can’t stop watching it.  “Gimme Shelter” was a documentary that captured my attention from beginning to end.

We get literally two documentaries in one.  We get to see the rock legends, the Rolling Stone at their best in Madison Square Garden performing with such flair.  This is the Rolling Stones that I would have loved to see perform back in the late ’60s and early ’70s.  I was just in awe by their performance in this documentary because my exposure to the Rolling Stones was what I have seen from the ’80s and now.  I can see why my parents and millions of people loved the band back then.  Mick Jagger was just all out and cool and to see him and the band on stage was just fantastic.

And then we get what was supposed to be an awesome day of music, becomes the worst thing you can imagine happening at a music festival.  Chaos.

For one thing, watching it and thinking how this event was pulled off with lack of organization, lack of security…it leaves me in awe.  Granted, the film was created before I was born and with the way things went at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, I am guessing that organizers were not expecting any chaos.  After all, it was a time of peace and love.  But also, people were on some major drug trips at the time and for the Hell’s Angels, they came for the beer and to do their job of protecting the stage and they came in the cue sticks and if people were going to get in the way, they were going to get beat down.

In hindsight, one can wonder how in the hell this could of happened but watching the film, was there any doubt that any decorum would take place?  This was organized chaos and David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were in the right place at the right time.   No one expected four people to die at this event, then again, no one expected people to give birth at this event.  I’ve read that no one expected 300,000 people to be at this event but when you have these major bands headlining, especially the Rolling Stones, this was significant and somehow, it’s hard to comprehend some of the decisions that were made prior to this event happening.

Keith Richards told the London “Evening Standard” in regards to the Altamont event, “Really, the difference between the open air show we held here in Hyde Park and the one there is amazing. I think it illustrates the difference between the two countries. In Hyde Park everybody had a good time, and there was no trouble. You can put half a million young English people together and they won’t start killing each other. That’s the difference.”

May it be the naiveness of the Stones and their manager but regardless, “Gimme Shelter” shows us the end of the hippie era.  Where “Monterey Pop” and “Woodstock” which both have respected documentaries showed the good of music during the late ’60s, “Gimme Shelter” showed us the bad.  Where hundreds of thousands of people were expecting awesome music for the day, those who were in the front row got to see the worst.  And the Maysles  and Zwerin were there to capture it on camera.  The filmmakers were at the right place at the right time and for decades, many people can watch this film over and over and listen to the wonderful music of the Rolling Stones but also get a dose of chaos all in one documentary.

The Blu-ray release of “Gimme Shelter” is once again, another magnificent release from the Criterion Collection.  The restoration and how its presented on HD is great, considering this is a 40-year-old film.  And also special features and a booklet that are equally fantastic.  This is a release that is simply worth owning.

“Gimme Shelter” is a fascinating documentary that has endured for decades and for us who were not around during that time, we watch this film like we see other tragedies that happened in American history, we see this and ask “why?”.  Like those who stood and cheered in Arlington, Texas with smiles on their face and then see chaos of John F. Kennedy being murdered.  Here we are six years later after Kennedy’s death but this time, at an even that was supposed to be peaceful and somehow ended up becoming deadly and the cameras catching the events leading to Meredith Hunter’s death.

The documentary leaves us and possibly the viewers of other generations after me asking how can this happen?  Why were the Hells Angels brought in?  Why was this even so badly organized?  Why did Hunter bring a gun?  Too many questions but not many answers?

“Gimme Shelter” is a fascinating and important film covering that one day where rock n’ roll went wrong.  This Blu-ray release is highly recommended!

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