The infamous free concert at Altamont Speedway just outside of San Francisco, held on Dec. 6, 1969 and headlined by the Rolling Stones, quickly became an epoch-marking bummer in both the mainstream and underground presses of the day. “Flower power bites the dust,” “the satanic chickens come home to roost,” “a generation loses its innocence,” blah, blah, blah.
Sure, when a supposedly groovy event ends in murder it’s going to put a dent in everybody’s paisley idealism, but that’s still a lot of symbolic freight to lay on a hastily assembled, ill-advised free concert whose main moral seemed to be that it’s not a good idea to ask the Hell’s Angels to handle crowd control. But the gathering-darkness spin fit the apocalyptic mood of the mid-Vietnam era and has since become conventional wisdom. Actually Altamont, like Monterey and Woodstock, was more of a beginning than an end and a rash of huge outdoor multiact concerts would occur during the next 10 years with hardly a notable incident.
Altamont supplies the unraveling climax of Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin which was restored and rereleased on its 30th anniversary in 2000. The filmmakers followed the Stones during the U.S. tour that coincided with the release of Let It Bleed, capturing the group adjusting to its first flush of arena success with Jagger camping it up in front of a band that still sounded like it cared (which doesn’t prevent them from being upstaged by opener Tina Turner’s NC-17 mic-caressing routine).
We also watch the group between gigs as they listen to playbacks of early mixes of cuts for Sticky Fingers, and (this is the brilliant touch) Jagger and Charlie Watts as they watch a rough cut of the documentary we’re watching. Here the film zeros in on the telling small detail, such as Watts’ helpless sighing over some of the Altamont material or Jagger’s amused embarrassment at some of his on-stage antics.
The final disastrous concert is a sharply edited, unsettling and tense piece of on-the-wing movie making — even if, in retrospect, the event doesn’t quite live up to its return-of-the-repressed reputation. It boils down to too many people in too small a space and a drunk motorcycle gang outfitted with pool cues. It wasn’t a karmic surge of bad vibes that put a crimp in hippie utopianism and it wasn’t Lucifer — it was logistics.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
E-mail Richard C. Walls at [email protected].