In the mesmerizing climax of Gimme Shelter, Mick Jagger, backed by the rest of the Rolling Stones, shimmies and gyrates on stage at the Altamont Speedway as the audience, roiling with fear and violence, surges in front of him. The song, ”Sympathy for the Devil,” sounds far more aggressive than it does on any recording, unfurling with a volcanic ecstatic force that Jagger, the combustible satyr, whips into a greater and greater frenzy. He puts on a big show of playing the devil, but that’s only the come-on: Jagger, who sings and dances as if he has known the devil’s pleasures, appears to be conjuring a spirit that even he’s a little afraid of.
Moments later, a young black man is stabbed in the back, in front of the stage, by a member of the Hell’s Angels, who are ostensibly there to control the crowd. This hideous act of brutality was captured on film by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who were chronicling the Stones on tour in 1969. The fact that we know it’s coming lends the movie a gathering of the storm clouds dread unique in all of rock cinema.
”Gimme Shelter,” which is being given a national rerelease on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, remains the only rock & roll film that exerts the saturnine intensity of a thriller. It’s like Woodstock directed by Oliver Stone. As the movie spirals toward its bloody catharsis, it feels like nothing so much as a rite of exorcism, with the queasy yet inexorable pull of multiple dark forces coming together. The Hell’s Angels, it’s clear, were looking for a fight (in an era that hated the cops, they got to be the cops), and the concert was atrociously planned, with the stage set up just yards from the audience. Yet none of this might have mattered much if the hippies, roughnecks, and love generation waifs weren’t already imploding under the anarchic spell of their own freedom. What they needed shelter from, it turns out, was themselves.