The Maysles brothers, Mick and crew, et al of course had no idea that things would end as they did, and, after some trippy live footage at Madison Square Garden, had assumed their concert film would capture the second Woodstock; the next explosion of youth-love and understanding. They were only correct in predicting the explosion.
Like in their other films, Grey Gardens and Salesman, the intimacy the film makers capture and their absence of judgement is astonishing. Even a smoking Tina Turner perfomance shot in front of thousands of people feels profoundly private and, frankly, a little dirty. The film follows the Stones on tour as they try to arrang a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. The second half of the film captures everything: in one scene a naked woman howls on a bad trip, in another Mick gets punched in the face, and that's early in he afternoon.
Presiding over the maddness are the Hell's Angels. Real Hell's Angels–dangerous and mean–acting as the “protection” and doing some “policing”, but as their engines roar and the sun sets the ominous feeling that something bad is going to happen is tangible. Of course something bad does happen, and the infamous murder is caught on film.
In stark contrast, other parts of the movie feel calm and subdued and there some nice quiet moments too, like the band listening to You Got the Silver at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio. Mick comes off the worst of the group, spewing hippie rhetoric but feeling small and insecure despite his rock star act. The real stars are the Maysles, who manage to capture all the right things on a very wrong night.