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Gimme Shelter was to chronicle a tour of the United States in 1969 by the Rolling Stones, the so-called bad boys from England. As a kind of "thank you" to America, the Stones planned to host a free concert in San Francisco. Unable to locate a venue, the concert was finally set at Altamont Speedway with little planning or foresight. Mick Jagger extolled their hopes for the concert in the film, saying, "It sets an example to the rest of America, as to how one can behave in nice gatherings."
The film was to be directed by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. The Maysles brothers were known for what they called "direct cinema" which utilized the techniques of fictional films to shape the reporting of actual events. This type of nonfiction filmmaking relied heavily on editing to form the context and structure of the film.
The Stones hired the Hell's Angels for security partly on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead. The Stones had also used Hell's Angels for security at a free concert in Hyde Park without problem, little realizing that the American Hell's Angels were much more riotous and prone to excessive drug use. In the guise of instilling order, the Angels used pool cues to beat the audience and threw full beer cans at them. The Rolling Stones' road manager decided that moving the Angels closer to the stage might settle the rowdy Angels down, and bought the Angels' beer for $500, moving it next to the stage, thus, the origin of the legend that the Angels were paid in beer. The stage was only a foot above the audience which made security even more difficult. Things started to get violent during the Jefferson Airplane's set. Singer Marty Balin objected to the way the Angels were acting and got knocked out by one. By the time the Stones got on stage, fights were appearing all over the crowd. As Sympathy for the Devil started playing, the Angels got into a fight with 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, who, when he pulled out a gun, was stabbed to death by the Angels in front of the camera. By this point, the Stones were playing Under My Thumb, and were valiantly trying to calm the audience, aware that some disturbance was occuring, but not realizing that someone had been killed. Three other deaths occurred at Altamont that day: 2 people in sleeping bags were run over, and one person drowned in a puddle. The magazine Rolling Stone reported, "Even the most incomplete medical reports show that this was a festival dominated by violence."