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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 Zwerwin were there to immortalize on film the bloody slash that transformed a decade’s dreams into disillusionment. (From the Criterion synopsis)

 Madison Square Garden in Gimme Shelter - Blu-ray
Having been born well after the events of Gimme Shelter, it’s safe to say that I was not a member of the 1960s' counterculture. The events that took place at the Altamont Speedway were known to me, but always remained a story in the back of my mind without any real gravity or meaning; nothing more than a chilling verse from Don McLean’s “American Pie”. I’ve also never been a huge Rolling Stones fan, but I knew and enjoyed a good portion of their hits. I went into this film knowing very little about it, except that it was an acclaimed concert film of their infamous free performance at the Altamont Speedway. Expecting interview footage and talking heads, I pushed play and found myself gripped by something completely different and a great deal more chilling.

For those unfamiliar with the notorious incident, during the Rolling Stone’s performance eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter drew a gun during a scuffle with the Hells Angels gang, and was consequently stabbed to death just feet away from the stage. Gimme Shelter, which was originally going to be a concert documentary, took on a whole new purpose when the incident occurred. At the time, the Rolling Stones had not even realized what had happened. The band members asked the filmmakers to let them look at the footage, and the directors seized this as an opportunity to film their reactions. As a result, we see the incident unfold and then watch as the band reflects on the footage. It isn’t done in an interview style. In fact, most of the footage is just their expressions, and it is absolutely captivating.  

 Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter - Blu-ray
There is some concert footage from their performances on tour before the Altamont Speedway, and it’s a treat for Stones fans, but far from their best captured live performances. Those looking purely for a concert movie should look elsewhere. The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, or even the more recent Shine a Light are much stronger displays of their musical talents. What Gimme Shelter does best is serve as a time capsule of the end of an era. It completely immerses the viewer in the chaos of the situation without ever making judgements or going for a boring analysis of why it happened. If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like to witness the end of an era, and the bitter sting of cultural disillusionment, look no further.

 Altamont Speedway in Gimme Shelter - Blu-ray


This 1080p (h264/AVC) image from Criterion is surely the best this film has ever looked. According to the Criterion booklet found inside this set, “this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from the 16 mm camera original and the 35 mm duplicate negative, under the supervision of codirector Albert Maysles.” Taking into account the age of the film, the fact that multiple 16mm cameras were used by different crew members (one of which was George Lucas, whose camera malfunctioned and had no useful footage), and the varying documentary styles used, this is a great looking and surprisingly consistent transfer. There is an apparent and healthy grain throughout the entirety of the film, and the colours are much richer than they’ve ever appeared previously on DVD or in stock footage from the event. Some debris is occasionally visible at the edges of the picture, but it is not very distracting or frequent. This release is a prime example of how the Blu-ray format isn’t just for modern blockbusters loaded with special effects.


Criterion (usually known for their adherence to the original source) surprisingly gave this film a remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and it sounds terrific. Though it’s arguably not a great concert film, Criterion seemed determined to make this a dynamic and robust audio track, and they’ve succeeded marvelously. Various instruments fill different channels with pleasant results. The film’s major success is its ability to send you back in time, completely immersing you in the 1969 setting. This lively surround mix enriches the experience dramatically. For diehard purists, or those with a stereo setup, there is also a terrific DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track of the original audio mix that more than gets the job done.  

 A Member of Hells Angels in Gimme Shelter - Blu-ray


Included with this Criterion set is their usual booklet which features essays by film critic Amy Taubin, music writer Stanley Booth, Mick Jagger’s former assistant Georgia Bergman, music writer Michael Lydon, and film critic Godfrey Cheshire. This is one of the thicker booklets I’ve seen come with a Criterion release, and the supplemental texts are quite valuable if you want an educated perspective on the Rolling Stones and what happened at the Altamont Speedway.

On the disc you’ll find an audio commentary with directors Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, and collaborator Stanley Goldstein. The supplements section kicks off with the '1969 KSAN Radio Broadcast' (01:29:23, audio only), a long and involving look at the event from shortly after the incident. You can listen to the people call in, including Sonny Barger, the head of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels. It’s a great companion to the film for people who want to absorb as much of the experience as possible. Following this is 'Outtakes' (18:28, HD), which includes some more footage of The Rolling Stones in an editing room mixing “Little Queenie”, as well as extra performances of “Oh Carol” and “Prodigal Son”, followed by some backstage footage featuring Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. After this, we have 'Images from Altamont', which consists of two HD slideshows of quality photographs taken during the event by Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower. There are also two theatrical trailers, and a preview for the rerelease of the film present on the disc.

 Altamont Speedway in Gimme Shelter - Blu-ray


Gimme Shelter is not very memorable as a music film, but it is an important and ugly page in the history of rock and roll that captures the harrowing end of an era. Criterion has provided a wonderful video transfer and a surprisingly effective surround remix that contributes to the immersive quality of the film. There is also plenty of quality extra material for those who wish to know more about the event.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.