Nearly five years have elapsed since a gunman opened fire on thousands of people at the Route 91 Harvest Festival outside the Las Vegas Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, as country music star Jason Aldean began his headlining set.
The eleven minutes of gunfire that took place Oct. 1, 2017 left 60 people dead and more than 800 injured – the largest mass shooting in American history.
Released Thursday on Paramount+, a new documentary “11 Minutes,” remembers, explores and memorializes the day when mass murderer Stephen Paddock opened fire from 32 stories in the air.
Storme Warren, the award-winning radio host who served as Route 91 Harvest Festival’s onstage host, told The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, that “11 Minutes” chronicles a “painful and cathartic” set of “really hard scenes, sounds, and stories that were heard and experienced.”
The 200-minute, four-episode feature shows country music is as much about celebrating the intersections of faith and family as it is a referendum on how Americans have internalized trauma and how they will process it in the future. It contemplates how the country music industry centers its proudest legacies around camaraderie and a willful acceptance of humanity’s flaws and beauty.
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In an exclusive interview with The Tennessean, Warren referenced the genuine familial aspects of the community that bonded the country music genre’s artists and fans, tested and strengthened by the tragedy.
“Everyone (at the festival) felt like they lost and found pieces of themselves there. Highlighting inspiration, empowerment, healing, good Samaritan generosity and hope emerging from horrific circumstances guides so much of this documentary,” Warren said.
Bravery and harrowing tales of avoiding death
Aldean’s voice is prominent in the documentary. He describes how his bass player, Tully Kennedy, was mere inches away from being hit by a bullet onstage.
He also recalls being hustled offstage and hiding in his tour van with his wife, Brittany, who was then seven months pregnant with the couple’s first son, Memphis.
The “Dirt Road Anthem” vocalist has spoken sparingly about the incident since its occurrence. However, his empathy for those impacted by the massacre is palpable.
When Aldean’s opener, Deejay Silver, describes realizing his children and their babysitter were staying at the Mandalay Bay and the fears circulating through the crowd that the shooter could turn his gunfire on those staying at the hotel – the worry is still present in his voice five years later.
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Warren describes eventually leaving his safe space and venturing onto the festival grounds after the shooting permanently impacted him via a young woman wearing red shorts.
He saw a young woman curled in the fetal position amid “bodies strewn everywhere.” Yet, he could not check on her condition as he was pulled toward another person needing help. Yet, until Warren watched the documentary, she remained a “haunting figure representing the entire night.”
Notable, too, are the numerous police officers, medical personnel, and survivors whose stories of bravery and harrowing tales of avoiding death add a macabre feel to the documentary.
Police officers’ body camera footage of stalking the shooter’s path at the Mandalay Bay – including entering his room and finding he had shot himself before being apprehended – is unforgettable.
The cell phone footage from the makeshift triage area at the nearby Tropicana Hotel, where survivors scrambled during and after the gunfire, is profound.
Natalie Grumet had her jaw nearly blown off her body by a single bullet. Hearing her describe finally being viewed by others damaged by gunfire is harrowing.
Hearing her discuss overcoming years of reconstructive surgery and the scarring she will have for the rest of her life allows for the life-changing impact of what transpired to resonate powerfully.
The documentary articulates both sides of gun control. The industry has often sided in support of its fanbase’s Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“Serious conversations must be had to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” Warren said, and that “no solutions are achieved via the documentary.”
The film’s greatest strength, he said, is it “presents problems and healing.”
Survivors reunite for documentary
Warren also highlighted a worldwide series of Route 91 Harvest Festival survivors’ reunions as one of his favorite parts of the documentary.
One includes the story of Compton-born, African American country music fan Jonathan Smith. Just before the start of Aldean’s set, he was asked, in a negative tone, why he was at the event – specifically because he was Black. Then, the documentary shows that during the shooting, he was shot in the neck and not immediately tended to by authorities on the scene.
Issues of racism in country music are now more at the forefront of the genre than ever. Their appearance in this documentary, at that moment, is heart-droppingly sad.
However, following Smith’s story – and his eventual rescue and healing – is an incredible victory of the documentary. Seeing him being embraced by fellow survivors and the issue of his race being superseded by community and goodwill is heartening.
It is not a blanket moment that points at an all-encompassing genre evolution. However, it is one of many bright moments in the genre’s continuing push toward acceptance of racial equity.
“If you were there and survived, you talk about this daily. You share camaraderie and healing through stories and hugging it out. This was an unbelievable event that defies understanding how and why it happened,” Warren said. He said the lessons learned and unity forged through the event and celebrated in the documentary will cause no drop in country music fans’ festival attendance.
“Route 91 Harvest Festival may never return to the Vegas Strip,” said Warren. However, via the Academy of Country Music Awards, casino residencies for acts including Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, plus artists like Dustin Lynch throwing poolside day parties, the genre’s Sin City footprint remains significant.
“Country music will now always have a slight bit of unnerving discomfort in Vegas. But we will not allow anyone or anything to take their genre away from us,” Warren said “We are a family and will always stick together through good, bad, or ugly.”