Hollywood Flashback: When 'Gimme Shelter' Captured One of the Darkest Nights of the 1960s
During the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, Mick Jagger was punched in the face, The Grateful Dead refused to play and an 18-year-old Rolling Stones fan was stabbed to death — and the 1970 concert documentary caught it all on film.
This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If Woodstock celebrates the brightest days of the '60s, Gimme Shelter captures one of the decade's darkest nights: The 1970 Rolling Stones concert documentary directed by David and Albert Maysles captured on film the stabbing of 18-year-old fan Meredith Hunter by a Hells Angels gang member.
When it was released, the movie was hugely controversial, with many reviewers including The New Yorker's Pauline Kael accusing the Maysles brothers of exploiting the tragedy.
Ironically, the brothers originally had planned to film Woodstock, recalls their then-producing partner Porter Bibb, but just before the August 1969 event began in upstate New York, their financing fell apart and the project collapsed (only to be picked up by Michael Wadleigh).
Trying to recoup their money, Bibb and the Maysles brothers put together a West Coast festival to be held at Altamont Speedway in Northern California. The intention was to make the concert the centerpiece of a film about the Stones' tour, but the show was a disaster from the beginning.
The Hells Angels, brought in to provide security in exchange for free beer, got drunk. People rushed the stage. Musicians, including Mick Jagger, were attacked by fans and Angels.
The Grateful Dead refused to play. When word got out that the killing was captured on film, the Angels reportedly put out a contract on the Maysleses and Bibb, and the FBI provided protection.
When Life magazine offered $50,000 to put Hunter's killing on its cover, the Maysleses thought it gave away the movie, but Bibb argued it would be great publicity. He lost the argument, sold his one-third interest in the film back to the brothers and had his credit reduced from producer to associate producer.
Still, Bibb says Gimme Shelter is one of the most important films of the era.
"Everybody initially gravitated to Woodstock with its peace, love and rock 'n' roll, but Altamont was a much more accurate portrayal," says Bibb. "This is the dark side of the moon of the '60s."