Gimme Shelter Review

Gary Couzens and Phil Gardner have reviewed the Region 1 DVD release of Gimme Shelter

Review by Gary Couzens

There are several candidates for the day the Sixties died. Maybe 31 December 1970, the day The Beatles officially broke up. Or possibly 18 September of the same year: the death of Jimi Hendrix. Less sentimentally perhaps, 17 October 1973, when OPEC raised the world oil price, ending the affluence on which the Sixties had depended. But for many people that day has to be 9 December 1969. At the end of their American tour, the Rolling Stones headlined a free festival at the Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco. Over 300,000 people attended. The local chapter of the Hell’s Angels acted as security. As the day wore on, it was clear that a bad atmosphere was building: fights broke out, the Angels equally violently dispersing them. Finally, as the Stones were performing “Under My Thumb”, an eighteen-year-old black man, Meredith Hunter, drew a gun. He was tackled by several Angels and in the scuffle was stabbed to death.

Earlier that year, the Woodstock festival (and the film made of it) seemed like the apotheosis of Peace and Love. Barely months later, Altamont became its violent negation. The celebrated documentarians, brothers David and Albert Maysles, were there. Gimme Shelter was the result. In a tightly edited 91 minutes (chief editor Charlotte Zwerin is credited as co-director), it covers the last ten days of the tour, beginning with a triumphant concert at Madison Square Garden and ending with the tragedy of Altamont. From time to time, we cut to the Stones in the editing suite, watching the film being put together. The atmosphere darkens with the skies, and the shots of the Angels guarding the stage and beating up anyone who goes near their bikes, are truly frightening, even more so when you are told that they were carrying knives and weighted pool cues as weapons. Mick Jagger’s face tells the whole story on its own. At Madison Square Garden, he’s exuberance personified, bounding around the stage like a pixie. In the Rainbow Room press conference, what comes over more than anything is a self-certainty that crosses the line into cockiness. Only a few months later, as the Maysles’ rerun the footage of Meredith Hunter’s stabbing for him, he seems to have aged years. For many people this event was a comedown, and Western popular culture was never the same again.

Criterion’s DVD does Gimme Shelter full justice. The film was shot on 16mm (a young George Lucas was one of the cameramen) and blown up to 35mm for cinema release. Originally given a R rating by the MPAA, Gimme Shelter had brief nudity and strong language cut for a PG rating. All of that material has been put back for this DVD, and the whole film has been digitally restored from the original camera negative. The DVD has a restoration demonstration which makes you appreciate the difference between this transfer and previous video releases. Yes, the picture is occasionally soft and often grainy, but all of that is due to the circumstances the film was made in: I can’t imagine this film looking any better in a home-cinema format. It’s non-anamorphic, but as Gimme Shelter is in a ratio of 4:3 widescreen enhancement would not be required. The film was originally released in mono, but the concert sequences were recorded on 16-track equipment, allowing a stereo remix for a later cinema reissue. This DVD has three soundtracks: for a comparison, see below.

The disc’s typically thorough supplementary material gathers many primary historical sources into one place. You can imagine that this DVD will be invaluable for later generations simply as a record of a key moment in cultural history. First of all is the commentary. David Maysles died in 1987, but his co-directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin are on hand, with the assistance of collaborator and Altamont attendee Stanley Goldstein. As ever with Criterion commentaries, it’s well thought out and edited (and indexed on the menu), with no dead spots. Maysles concentrates on the making of the film, Goldstein on the event itself, with Zwerin contributing filmmaking anecdotes along the way.

Then-DJ Stefan Ponek introduces excerpts from local radio station KSAN’s Altamont coverage, with on-the-spot interviews and phone-ins. This is divided into thirteen chapters, with the whole of the Rainbow Room press conference is added as an extra. The radio excerpts run 88:55, only a couple of minutes shorter than the film itself. Most people won’t want to listen to all of this in one go, but it’s hard to argue for its omission, considering its status as historical record. Once again you have to commend Criterion for their thoroughness.

The outtakes and backstage footage (totalling 22:11) are also separately indexed. This material was sourced from a workprint and has its fair share of spots and scratches, and sections of black leader between shots. Onstage, we see three numbers from Madison Square Garden cut from the film: “Little Queenie”, “Oh Carol” and “Prodigal Son”. This footage has an unusual sound format: 1.1 mono, that is centre speaker and subwoofer only. Elsewhere, we watch the Stones mixing “Little Queenie”, and some backstage banter between the Stones and Ike and Tina Turner (who, along with Jefferson Airplane, were on the bill at Altamont and appear in the film). This footage is in standard 1.0 mono.

There are five trailers, the original theatrical main (running 2:08) and teaser (0:30) trailers, plus the reissue trailer (2:49). Additionally, Criterion provide trailers for two other notable Maysles documentary features, 1969’s black and white Salesman (3:13) and 1975’s Grey Gardens (0:33). All these are in 1.0 mono, except for the reissue trailer which is in 2.1 stereo. The latter two trailers help give us some perspective on the filmmakers; to this end, there are filmographies for the Maysles brothers and a separate (but considerably overlapping) one for Zwerin. Photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower provide the contents of the stills galleries. There are twenty-seven chapter stops. Quite rightly there are English hard-of-hearing subtitles, though for some reason they only subtitle dialogue and not the song lyrics.

Finally, the booklet is much more substantial than a simple chapter and credits list. Also included are six essays on Altamont and Gimme Shelter, from film critics Amy Taubin and Godfrey Cheshire to participants like Jagger’s assistant Georgia Bergman and Hell’s Angels chapter leader Sonny Barger, which give further depth to our understanding of the event.

Sound comparison by Phil Gardner

There is often some discussion about the differences between Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks, and whether or not it is worth upgrading to the later. This is not helped by the supporters of each format disclaiming the other. Initial comparisons between these formats often leave the listener thinking that there is very little between the two. And to be honest, to the casual observer, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only difference is that the DTS track simply seems to be just louder than the 5.1 track.

However, take some time to correctly set up your Home Theatre Sound System – and then spend some time actually listening to some source material – and perhaps then you may realise that the DTS track is a little more than just “louder”.

And where better to take a closer look at these different sound formats than with the Criterion release of Gimme Shelter?

As far as supplementary material, stunning transfers and restorations go, Criterion are head and shoulders above the majority of the opposition. But with the release of Gimme Shelter can they come up with the goods as far as this other medium goes? The medium of sound?

I am pretty sure that to create soundtracks from modern day music would be a comparative walk in the park – but how would Criterion fare with a sound track some thirty years old? In truth the answer is extremely well – but in actual fact, with the correct set up and a ear for music, the answer is unbelievably well, to the point where you have to say that any further improvement would have to be an incredible achievement.

Criterion have presented three main audio tracks for your enjoyment; A Dolby Digital 2.0 track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a DTS track. Being a Criterion release you will know that the different tracks have been remixed with extreme attention to detail, and you can guess that they will each sound very good. But the question is, how do the separate tracks compare? And is there any point in spending money on a Home Cinema amp and speaker set-up to appreciate these different tracks? I am going to focus on one song from the soundtrack of the film for this comparison, but the same can be said for any of the songs contained in this film’s soundtrack. But for me there is one particular track that really highlights the differences between the 2.0, the 5.1 and DTS tracks. This track is “Wild Horses”.

Firstly the Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Straight from the word go you will realise that this track sounds good, especially as I mentioned above, the fact that it is thirty years plus old. Separation is good with an average stereo image. The drums and vocals are straight ahead, with the guitars to the right and left. There is no real sense of depth, with the sound being up front and a little too in your face. Though it has to be said that the track sounds quite nice with some rear surround action that helps create some ambience. All in all a nice track.

The second track is the Dolby Digital 5.1 track – and it is here that the real difference between the 2.0 and the 5.1 shows. There is far more detail with some subtle separation, and a much wider stereo image. The vocals are a little quieter but are far more effective as the song slowly builds. The song is a quiet ballad, but the separation of the instruments is remarkable, proving that you do not need a thumping soundtrack to show off your system. You will have no trouble picking out the individual instruments.

Finally onto the DTS track. As I have hinted at above, often DTS is dismissed as being not that much better than 5.1 – simply because people believe that all they have done is turn up the volume on the track, and that this then makes it sound better. The truth of the matter is that while the DTS track is noticeably louder it is far more than just so. The first impression is of far more clarity and a delightfully subtle increase in the bass from the LFE track – as I said this song is not a thumping, screaming, hard hitting track, it is a quiet ballad. There is even more clarity to the sound than the 5.1 track, and the stereo imaging is simply fantastic. It is an absolute dream compared to the other tracks – but this does not mean that the other tracks are that bad, it is just that the DTS track is so much better. It gives you a genuine sensation of the song enveloping you as it builds and builds. With such an expansive sound stage and the clarity and definition of the individual instruments this track is simply incredible, and a world apart from the 2.0 track.

To my mind this song is the one track to use to conduct a comparison – the song is so subtle that you would think that no matter what sound system you play it through it will not make that much difference. This just proves how wrong you can be. But, of more importance to the average consumer, it does not matter what sound system you currently own. Criterion have you covered and a lot of time has obviously been spent on all three mixes, so regardless of whether you have a standard stereo set up, through to a 5.1 set up and onto a DTS set up, you will all fully appreciate this disc. And to answer that age old question of is a DTS track really that better than a 5.1 track, well the simple answer using this disc as a comparison is yes – far better. If you are a big Stones fan and have the budget, go treat yourself to a DTS system – it is the ultimate way to fully appreciate this release.

Regardless of your tastes in music you will have to applaud the way Criterion have presented this documentary and its soundtrack – as often appears to be the case with quality DVD releases – this is the only way to watch this film – you will not be disappointed.


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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