Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles dies at 88

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Albert Maysles was a pioneering documentarian

Best-known films include "Gimme Shelter," about Rolling Stones Altamont concert

The filmmaker also did "Grey Gardens"

The Hollywood Reporter  — 

Albert Maysles, who collaborated along with his late brother David in a documentary film career that included the troubling 1970 concert documentary “Gimme Shelter,” has died. He was 88.

The director and cinematographer, an Oscar nominee, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan of natural causes, Stacey Farrar, marketing director at the Maysles Center in New York, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Gimme Shelter” – which chronicled the 1969 Rolling Stones tour that culminated in the Altamont Free Concert, in which a fan brandishing a gun was stabbed to death by a Hells Angels security man — stood in a stark and more enduring counterpoint to the myth of the documentary “Woodstock,” a depiction of the glorified 1969 free concert whose own dark side was left out in its pre-conceived, celebratory style.

Their most well-known film, “Grey Gardens” (1975), was a profile of Jacqueline Onassis’ eccentric cousins – mother and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier – who lived in a dilapidated, cat-packed estate in East Hampton, New York. The brothers worked with fellow directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer on the film, which was remade as a Tony-winning Broadway play and as an award-winning 2009 HBO drama that starred Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

Just prior to “Gimme Shelter,” they filmed “Salesman” (1969), which covered six weeks in the lives of four door-to-door Bible salesmen.

The brothers, who preferred the moniker of filmmaker rather than director, often focused on musical figures. Maysles was a cameraman on D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” (1968), about the celebrated California music festival that featured electrifying performances from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

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During that period of their career, they also collaborated on such direct cinemas as “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” (1964), “With Love From Truman” (1966) and “Meet Marlon Brando” (1966), which premiered at the New York Film Festival. In 1968, they made “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic,” and the following year, they shot “Horowitz Plays Mozart,” also for TV.

“People are people. We’re out to discover what is going on behind the scenes and get as close as we can to what is happening,” he said of their cinematic style. There were often emotional reactions to their films; fans applauded them for the trust they developed with their subjects, allowing them to reveal long-repressed feelings or telling insights. Their style – with their subjects caught by a hand-held camera and shotgun mike – was in the tradition of such documentarians as Frederick Wiseman.

However, cinema verite “purists” argued that the Maysleses sometimes exploited the content, particularly in regard to the omniscient editing of “Gimme Shelter,” where their flashback storytelling style created a dramatic foreboding and “imposed” a narrative on the Stones’ tour.

Flashbacking from Mick Jagger reviewing their footage, with Altamont’s horrific memory in the recent past, “Gimme Shelter” punctuated a feeling of dread as the events moved inexorably to the tour’s cataclysmic end. Originally, the “free concert” was planned to happen in San Francisco, but logistics went askew and it ended up at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. Muddled by inadequate planning and the darkness at the fringes of the peace/love zeitgeist, the concert was a ghoulish nightmare.

Admittedly, the Maysleses straddled a line between artistic license and nonfiction narrative. “Al and Dave often argue that all they’re doing is filming what’s there. The detail is comment: fingers scratching, soft focusing. A filmmaker is always making comments,” cinematographer Haskell Wexler once opined in a Village Voice article.

He and his brother, who died in January 1987 at age 55, received an Oscar nomination for the 28-minute short “Christo’s Valley Curtain” (1974), about the artist’s first public work. That year, Albert shot film of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman 1974 heavyweight title bout in Zaire that would become the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary “When We Were Kings.”

Maysles won three Emmys, two for his work with his brother on “The Last Romantic” and “Soldiers of Music” (1991) and one for “Abortion: Desperate Choices” (1991).

In 2001, he shot “Lalee’s Kin: A Legacy of Cotton” for HBO, a depiction of rural poverty in the Mississippi Delta that he created with Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson, with whom he also worked on “Desperate Choices.”

Maysles also filmed half-hour portraits of filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Robert Duvall and Jane Campion, and he remained quite active in his later years.

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He was born November 26, 1926, in Boston and raised in nearby Brookline, Massachusetts. He got a B.A. at Syracuse University and a masters at Boston University, where he subsequently taught. During World War II, he was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Headquarters Intelligence School in Oberammergau, Germany.

In the mid-1950s, Maysles traveled to Russia, where he made a 1955 film on mental health care and psychiatry in Russia. It was shown on NBC’s “Today” show and by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

In 1957, the brothers began working as a team. They traveled from Munich to Moscow by motorcycle and made a film about the Polish student revolution, ‘Youth in Poland,” which was televised by NBC. Next, they worked on an experimental TV project for Time Inc., with Maysles shooting Primary and Yanqui No!

In 1962, they formed their own company. They made “Showman,” a portrait of movie magnate Joseph E. Levine that brought them attention. The film was acclaimed on the festival circuit, but the Maysles dubbed it an “expensive resume.” They subsequently won a Guggenheim Fellowship in Experimental Film.

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