Called "the greatest rock film ever made," this landmark documentary follows the Rolling Stones on their notorious 1969 U.S. tour. When 300,000 members of the Love Generation collided with a few dozen Hell's Angels at San Francisco's Altamont Speedway, direct cinema pioneers David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin immortalized on film the bloody slash that transformed a decade's dreams into disillusionment.
Criterion’s original DVD for Gimme Shelter presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc.
Disappointingly this transfer is interlaced, presenting its fair share of problems. There’s plenty of jagged edges, combing, and trailing throughout the film, and most of this, if not all, can be attributed to the fact the transfer isn’t progressive. Blacks are okay if nothing special, sometimes looking a little muddy, but colours are surprisingly bright. Reds are not altogether that strong, though, looking more orange, this becoming more obvious after recently seeing Criterion’s Blu-ray edition.
The image can be surprisingly sharp at times, but at the same time detail isn’t all that impressive. Grain is evident on occasion, though can look like noise. The print is in pretty good shape, a surprise all things considered, only presenting some damage.
The elements look like they’re in strong shape but Criterion’s transfer harms it and holds it back. The interlaced transfer presents some very obvious problems that are quite noticeable. The Blu-ray edition, which is progressive, is a huge step up and the one to go with.
Criterion presents three audio tracks, starting with what I assume is the original track, a 2.0 track. It also contains two remastered tracks: a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, and then a DTS 5.1 track.
The two remastered tracks sound very good, though I thought at times both could sound a tad harsh and unnatural. As a whole, though, both present great surround effects, fantastic bass, and great range. The DTS track is the stronger of the two, with more distinct bass and what I found to be more noticeable surround effects and better fidelity.
The 2.0 track sounds a little flatter but is better than I would have expected. Music sounds pretty good and also has some decent range. While this track is here for the purists I’d still say give one of the 5.1 tracks a go, preferably the DTS track.
Criterion’s special edition collects together some decent supplements, all of which haven’t made it on to the new Blu-ray edition.
First up is an audio commentary featuring Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, and Stanley Goldstein. In all honesty I had always been disappointed with this track and I’m still disappointed with it after revisiting it on this Blu-ray. The three have all been recorded separately, but this isn’t my issue with it (as usual, Criterion’s editing job is spot-on and feels seamless.) Considering the subject matter within the film I think I’ve always expected more from it and at heart it’s more of a technical commentary. Goldstein and Maysles (Maysles taking up the bulk of the track) talk about how the film came to be, the team being approached by the Stones who wanted a documentary made on their tour. They share some anecdotes (Zwerin, whose interview sounds to have been recorded on rather shoddy material, sharing most of them) like Mick Jagger watching some of the shot footage, Tina Turner and B.B. King (who they never filmed) at Madison Square Garden, and then their observations at Altamont. Unfortunately they never really talk about what happened at Altamont except in passing. They mention incidents but never really address them, and, without giving away the film, there is one incident that is the key to the film that I always figured would get more attention from them. Things happened at that concert that probably shouldn’t have happened (like the Hell’s Angels acting as security) and I was disappointed the three never really address any of it, almost skirting the issue. They mention threats from the Hell’s Angels, and issues getting Mick Jagger to sign off on the film and then getting distribution. They also talk about some of the criticisms against the film, specifically Pauline Kael’s charges, but that’s about it. The commentary is fine enough on a technical level and there are some decent stories, but I just expected more and listening to it again after a few years I still feel the same way.
Much better in covering this area is the next feature, 1969 KSAN Radio Broadcast. 69-minutes of this 89-minute feature is excerpts from a 4-hour show that occurred the day after Altamont. Stefan Ponek, a DJ at the time and one of the participants in the show, offers introductions to certain segments (the introductions were recorded back in 2000, before his death in 2001.) The excerpts look at the events of Altamont, and the participants try to figure out why things went so wrong at this concert and not at Woodstock. Some interesting theories are thrown around, and call-ins from people who were there do shed some light on it. While you get audience members calling in you also get two call ins from members of Hell’s Angels, including Sonny Barger and someone simply known as Pete. Pete comes off fairly calm and offers what he saw, but Sonny (who takes up the most time in this feature) comes off a little more defensive in his rambling call-in, and as Ponek points out he is probably drunk and/or high. Divided into twelve chapters it’s a great feature offering a rather strong examination of the events at Altamont and what it possibly all means. It’s a great historical record and while it’s disappointing Criterion hasn’t included everything I appreciate them digging this up and including it here.
As a bonus, the remaining 20-minutes present the audio from the press conference with the Rolling Stones in the The Rainbow Room (found in the index under “BONUS: The Rainbow Room.”) Footage from this interview appears in the documentary but this appears to be the entire segment. They talk about their trip to the U.S.A., Vietnam, Ed Sullivan, and anything else that gets thrown at them. I find it interesting that Criterion sort of hides it in another feature, but it’s not too hard to find and is a great piece worth listening to. You have the option to “Play All” or go through the index of 12 chapters (plus 1 bonus chapter.)
18-minutes worth of outtakes are also available. These include a mixing session for “Little Queenie”, and then footage of the Stones performing “Oh Carol” and “Prodigal Son.” There is then footage of Mick with Ike and Tina Turner at Madison Square Garden. While the audio drops out a few times it’s good material and worth viewing.
Images From Altamont presents two galleries of photos taken by photographers Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower. Each gallery can be navigated through using the left/right arrows on your remote. They’re decent sized galleries with some good photos of the crowds, the Angels, and the stage. You also get a couple of photos of someone being taken away on a stretcher, though since it looks to have been taking much earlier in the day I don’t think it has to do with the incident that happened with Angels later on.
Under Maysles Trailers you can find five theatrical trailers. First you get two original trailers for Gimme Shelter and then a re-release trailer. Unlike the Blu-ray edition you also get trailers for Salesman and Grey Gardens.
Filmographies presents a text list of selected filmographies for the David and Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin up to 2000. There’s also three photos, one for each individual.
Also not found on the new Blu-ray edition is the Restoration Demonstration, covering the extensive restoration for the video and audio. At 4-minutes it’s rather interesting with comparisons and text notes. I’ve always liked these and I’m somewhat disappointed Criterion doesn’t include them anymore. As to why it’s not on the Blu-ray edition I assume it has to do with the fact the Blu-ray probably received a new transfer, making this one obsolete (the new Blu-ray is a progressive transfer where again this DVD is interlaced.)
The booklet includes a few excellent essays, starting with a short essay on the film by Amy Taubin, what I believe is either an excerpt about Altamont from Stanley Booth’s book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones or are his brief recollections of it written for this and the DVD’s release, an short bit by Georgia Bergman on the Stones’ American tour, a short essay by Michael Lydon on the 60’s and the lead up to Altamont and how it was the intro to the 70’s, an excerpt from Hell’s Angels member Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s Let it Bleed: No Sympathy For the Devils at Altamont, presenting his version of events at Altamont (this excerpt, for whatever reason, is NOT included in the booklet for the Blu-ray,) and then finally a nice essay on the film by Godfrey Cheshire, who also looks into Kael’s comments about the film (which I was surprised are missing elsewhere.)
It’s a solid release supplement wise. The commentary is disappointing to me but it does offer some decent material. But whatever the commentary fails to cover or examine the KSAN radio program more or less makes up for it. A decent if unspectacular selection of supplements.
The DVD was a decent edition upon its original release, though the new Blu-ray offers a superior improvement. While the Blu-ray is missing supplements found on here the new transfer on that edition should trump that, especially since I can’t say the supplements missing are too significant (though I still question the lack of the Barger excerpt, and I did like the restoration demo.) The video transfer is a little disappointing but I still recommend the edition, though if one has Blu-ray capabilities I would point them to the new improved transfer found on the Blu-ray edition.