It is a bad omen when Mick Jagger is punched by a stranger upon exiting the helicopter. The Summer of Love was long over.
Problems arise during the Jefferson Airplane's set. The crowd surges closer to the stage. The Hells Angels defend the stage area as if they are battling zombies. Lead singer Marty Balin is knocked unconscious by a Hells Angel when Balin leaves the stage to stop the melee. The crowd is calmer during the Flying Burrito Brothers set, but when the Stones begin to perform, the violence resumes.
Aghast, lead singer Mick Jagger stops performing in the middle of "Sympathy for the Devil" to plead with the crowd to "stop fighting." He is unsuccessful. During "Under My Thumb", 18 year old meth-charged Meredith Hunter is stabbed and beaten to death by Hells Angels after Hunter brandishes a gun.
Elsewhere in the film, we get a glimpse of the Rolling Stones road life at a humble Holiday Inn that your grandparents might have stayed at during their vacation to Fisherman's Wharf a half century ago. We hear studio versions of "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses", A-side singles recorded days earlier at Muscle Shoals and unreleased until April 1971. And we see much of Melvin Belli, a flamboyant middle-aged lawyer and local San Francisco celebrity who helped plan the Altamont concert and yes, did appear as the antagonist in an episode of "Star Trek."
How others will see it. The Maysles brothers were fresh off the recent success of Salesman, a grim low-budget documentary. Their big later success was Gray Gardens (1975). The forty-something filmmakers were unlikely candidates for the Rolling Stones' planned concert movie from their 1969 American tour, but they proved to be the right choice.
Gimme Shelter was also well received, but failed to garner any festival nods. Today at imdb.com, the film has a respectable 12K user votes and a high user rating of 7.8 out of 10. The user reviews are predominantly positive. Most note that what was supposed to be a concert documentary instead became something of a horror movie. "I've never seen a concert documentary that concerned itself more with building a feeling of dread and suspense than showing the hits."
How I felt about it. Many hours of footage are filmed for documentaries, with the footage edited down into a 90 to 120 minute feature. It is interesting what makes the final cut. Tina Turner performing "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is included because Turner treats the microphone like a giant phallus. An interview question fielded by Mick Jagger about whether he has achieved satisfaction is included, again, because Jagger's antimated reply has sexual overtones.
Melvin Belli makes the movie because he is confident and charismatic. "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses" are included because the Stones recognized their importance, and apparently wanted them in the movie.
Hells Angel Sonny Barger's radio interview with KSAN-FM is included because it explains the behavior of the Hells Angels during the concert. They were hired to stop fans from storming the low and easily accessible stage. They also sought revenge on anyone who messed with their motorcycles, their sole valuable possession. And their motive to appear in the first place was that they were promised all the free beer that they could drink. And drink it they did.
We do get a glimpse of what the film should have been like. The band is captured at Madison Square Garden peforming "Honky Tonk Women." There, as well, fans clamor onto the low stage, and security duly grabs and forcibly removes them. But nobody is clearly injured, and that is the difference with the Altamont concert. It is notable, though, that the Maysles brothers find the stage crashers more interesting than the Rolling Stones themselves.
Concert movies are typically about filming the stage production. Gimme Shelter is different, because the story is bigger, and the filmmakers want to learn it. We see how hopeless it would have been to attempt to attend the free concert by car. A string of parked cars extends for miles on both sides down the road. The public presumably hiked for a considerable distance to reach the speedway, where they were greated with a poor sound system and a lack of urinals.
To paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to plan. The organizers were too eager to organize a free Bay area concert featuring the Rolling Stones. It would have been better, in retrospect, for the Western Woodstock to exclude the World's Greatest Rock And Roll Band if that was what was needed to do the job right.