The Legacy of Documentarian Albert Maysles

MAYSLES, ALBERT 2Along with his brother David, filmmaker Albert Maysles–who passed away last week at the age of 88–played a key role in the evolution of documentary cinema, their “Direct Cinema” style bridging the gap between such early pioneers as Robert Flaherty and John Grierson and the stylized contemporary works of Errol Morris and Michael Moore. Born in Boston in 1926, Maysles studied psychology at Syracuse and, after finishing his master’s program, taught the subject for three years at Boston University before turning his attention to film.

Breaking into moviemaking with a silent 1955 short, Psychiatry in Russia, Albert then worked with “cinema verité “innovator Robert Drew on various projects, including the 1960 Democratic presidential campaign chronicle Primary, before establishing Maysles Films two years later with his younger sibling David. The brothers first gained notoriety when they filmed What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., which followed the Fab Four on their 1964 American tour and was later edited into 1990’s The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit.

The following is a selection of other key works currently available on home video by Albert Maysles–both with David, who died from a stroke in 1987, and later projects he made solo and in collaboration with other documentarians:

SALESMAN 2Salesman (1968) — Who says you can’t put a price on salvation? The Maysles Brothers’ fascinating documentary follows four door-to-door Bible sellers–nicknamed “The Badger,” “The Gipper,” “The Rabbit” and “The Bull”–on their rounds across the Southeast and New England. From large cities and small towns, and at a Chicago “sales convention,” each man’s hard-sell campaign on his (mostly poor and working-class) clients is detailed. This Criterion Collection release includes audio commentary, an interview, and the theatrical trailer.


GIMME SHELTERGimme Shelter (1970) — Given access to record The Rolling Stones on their 1969 U.S. tour, the Maysles followed the band across the country in what was shaping up to be an interesting, if un-dramatic, chronicle of life on the road and the business side of rock and roll. That all changed with the tour’s final show, the disastrous free concert at Altamont, Ca., show that saw the murder of a concertgoer by Hell’s Angels “security guards.” Along with stunning footage of the actual incident, Gimme Shelter offers Mick, Keith and company performing “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar,” “Satisfaction” and more, along with footage of guest acts Ike and Tina Turner, The Jefferson Airplane and The Flying Burrito Bros. This remastered, uncensored Criterion Collection edition includes previously unseen footage (with the songs “Little Queenie,” “Prodigal Son” and more) and the 1990s re-release trailer. (Years later, Albert would make a special appearance in Martin Scorsese’s 2008 Stones documentary, Shine a Light.)


GREY GARDENS 1975Grey Gardens (1975) — Another Criterion release, the Maysles’ landmark “direct cinema” portrait of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, a mother/daughter duo of former socialites–aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jackie Kennedy Onassis–follows their idiosyncratic, reclusive existence in their decaying Long Island estate in the Hamptons. The common bonds that repel and attract the women form the basis for what was described as  a “fugue of remembrance and recrimination.” Believe it or not, Grey Gardens inspired a 2006 Broadway musical, as well as an Emmy-winning HBO drama starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, also titled Grey Gardens, two years later. This special edition features an audio commentary, interviews, a photo gallery and trailers.


GREY GARDENS 1975 2The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006) — Comprised of unused footage from the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, this “new” film returns to the dilapidated East Hamptons mansion for more odd encounters with the elderly “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and “Little Edie,” her fashion-conscious daughter. Living hauntingly far from the Camelot ideal, the feisty Kennedy family cousins are paid further tribute in this continuation of the Beales’–and the Maysles’–saga.


MUHAMMAD AND LARRYMuhammad and Larry (1980) — Late in 1980, Muhammad Ali came out of retirement and ventured to become heavyweight champion for a record fourth time against former sparring partner Larry Holmes. Albert Maysles chronicled the fight, its buildup, and both men’s training camp from each fighter’s perspective at the time. Paired with new reflective conversations when it was aired in 2009 as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, the film thoughtfully examines the undoing and humbling of a legend, who was trying to convince the world and himself that he was still “the greatest.”


LALEE'S KINLaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001) — The crushing cycle of poverty for the working poor of the Mississippi Delta is brought home by this Oscar-nominated chronicle, co-directed by Albert Maysles, Deborah Dickson and Susan Froemke. The struggles of the West Tallahatchie School System to elevate standards and find qualified teachers are paralleled with those of LaLee Watkins, matriarch of three generations of crop workers who’ve known no opportunity beyond picking cotton.


GATES, THEThe Gates (2008) — In 1979, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude proposed one of the largest public art projects in history: a “golden river” of 7,500 orange-fabric gates in Manhattan’s Central Park. Then, for 26 years, they fought for the city’s approval…until finally, in 2005, “The Gates” was installed over 23 miles of walkways. Maysles’ captivating documentary reveals the intricate process behind their magnificent work and captures the sheer amazement of its many witnesses. This was the last of five films that Maysles made in collaboration with Christo, the first being 1974’s Christo’s Valley Curtain.