The Rolling Stones, Hell’s Angels and Altamont: A New View

Crowd of people at side of stage on a sunny day

Mick Jagger (in red) and Keith Richards (in shades, natch), just off stage at the Altamont concert, hours before their segment turned deadly. Dec. 6, 1969. Home video footage. National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

This is a guest post by Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section. 

Here at the Library, we’re dedicated to the acquisition, description, preservation and accessibility of our film, video, and sound recording collections regardless of perceived “worth.” We really do want to make it all available for future generations  ΜΆ  so we don’t necessarily prioritize beloved classics over a refrigerator ad or the song “Fido is a Hot Dog Now.”

But every so often something comes along that attracts a lot of attention – such as a never-before-seen home movie from the notorious Altamont Free Concert in 1969, in which the Hell’s Angels, who had been hired to provide security, stabbed a fan to death during a confrontation over a gun. It was a major cultural turning point of the era, and the heart of the Maysles Brothers 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter.”

But this new find was home footage from the event that had never seen the light of day and it’s now available for viewing on the National Screening Room. (There is no audio, so don’t try to fix your sound.)

And as is so often the case, the tale of how this remarkable video emerged from a mass of unprocessed films is a pretty good story on its own.

It starts in 1996 when archivist/historian/collector/polymath Rick Prelinger — one of the most influential thinkers in our field—acquired a cache of reels from Palmer Films, a San Francisco company that was going out of business. He added them to his burgeoning collection of ephemeral films.

In 2002, the Library acquired the roughly 200,000 reels in the Prelinger Collection. A press release predicted it would “take several years before the Library will be in a position to provide access to these films.” As it turns out, that was optimistic — we are still making steady progress on the collection 19 years later.

Then, not long ago, a technician working on the Prelinger Collection came across two reels of silent 8mm reversal positive—a  common home movie format. The handwritten note on the film leader read “Stones in the Park,  so that was the title he gave it for our inventory.

When I saw that, I immediately thought that it could be a home movie of the July 5, 1969, Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert held in London a couple of days after the death of guitarist Brian Jones. But it could also be a copy of a documentary of the same name, which would make the discovery considerably less interesting.

Regardless, I sent the reels up for 2K digitization by our film preservation laboratory. A couple of days later, I heard from some very excited colleagues that the scan wasn’t the Hyde Park show. It was from the Altamont Speedway concert in California and it definitely wasn’t footage from the 1970 documentary.

Many people know the “Gimme Shelter” documentary pretty well, but there’s a lot more in this home movie.

Photo taken from wings of open-air concert of a guitar player, turned away from microphone, with scaffolding and crowds in background under a hazy sky

Carlos Santana performs at Altamont, Dec. 6, 1969. Home video footage. National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

Although the footage is silent, we were all thrilled to see close-up footage of concert performers who were cut from the film, such as Carlos Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. (CNSY wasn’t pleased with their performance and refused to let the Maysles include them.) It was especially great to see Gram Parsons fronting the Flying Burrito Brothers, since you only see the back of his head in “Gimme Shelter.” Even better, there are good shots of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards off-stage watching him perform!

The second reel is from the Stones’ evening performance, which, while it captures some of chaos so memorably seen in “Gimme Shelter,” doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the death of Meredith Hunter at the hands of a member of the Hell’s Angels.

So what’s the legal status of this home movie? After checking in with Rick to see if he had any inkling of the film’s existence—he didn’t—and not discovering any pertinent documentation, we believe that it is an orphan work, in this case  abandoned at Palmer Labs by whoever shot it. They just never picked it up.

We have a particular fondness for home movies here at the Library. Several are on the National Film Registry and of course the Prelinger Collection is full of them, so who knows what further treasures will emerge?

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