On December 6, 1969, hundreds of thousands of young people gathered at the Altamont Speedway, a race track located east of San Francisco, for a free music festival featuring The Rolling Stones.
On September 18, 2017, Athens locals and Ohio University students alike filled The Athena Cinema to witness the chaos in events leading up to this iconic festival. The same festival that ended in the tragic death of Meredith Hunter.
Directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, “Gimme Shelter” documents exactly how the rock icon, The Rolling Stones, pulled together one of the largest music festivals at the time.
“Gimme Shelter” is not the typical filmed concert documentary that showcases only performances from the band. Freshman journalism major, Molly Schramm, shared her admiration of the documentary. However, although it wasn’t exactly what Molly was expecting, the film held her interest in an unexpected way.
“It showcased not only The Rolling Stones, but their free show in San Francisco and the death that made it infamous,” Schramm says.
The film opens with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman huddled around a few small screens, watching footage from the Altamont. From Jagger’s furrowed eyebrows and Watts’ intense stares and attentive head nods, it’s clear they are trying to decipher how their concert could have ended in the death of a fan.
Altamont Music Festival was originally supposed to be the “West Coast version of Woodstock,” according to history.com. However, while Woodstock was a peaceful, organized gathering of young people to celebrate rock and roll, Altamont was described as extremely unorganized and it wasn’t hard for things to get out of hand.
“Gimme Shelter” shows The Rolling Stones’ public relations team as they struggled to finalize a venue for the festival. It wasn’t until two days before the festival that the Altamont was chosen as the official venue for the event.
In addition to the chaotic last minute preparations, Altamont also lacked an official security team. Instead, The Rolling Stones enlisted the help of motorcycle gang, Hells Angels to sit on stage and attempt to control the crowd.
It was this makeshift security team that ultimately led to death of Altamont crowd member, Meredith Hunter: a tragedy that the Altamont Music Festival is now associated with.
Athena viewers watched in anticipation as Mick Jagger witnessed footage of the chilling event for the first time days after the concert. The Maysles brothers had clearly captured Hunter on film, pushing through the crowd and creating a scene. Almost immediately, a Hells Angel jumped into the scene. Frightened, Hunter pulled a gun and the Hells Angel pulled a knife.
The crowd erupted in a panic and The Rolling Stones had to stop their performance for the third time that night. Although Mick Jagger had not yet understood what had happened, he called for medical help to assist Hunter, but by the time help arrived it was too late.
The silence that filled the Athena as they witnessed, along with Mick Jagger, exactly what had happened was almost tangible. The sight of the gun and the knife was enough to literally take one’s breath away as many in the audience audibly gasped.
“I think it’s cool that the Athena is showing the documentary,” Schramm says. “Even though it’s from 1970, [the movie] is about something monumental in rock and roll history.”