Friday, March 6, 2015

The Late Great Albert Maysles

Legendary documentarian Albert Maysles died March 5 2015 at the age of 88. With his brother David Maysles he was a pioneer of  cinéma vérité who documented The Beatles' first visit to the United States and made such films as Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975).

Albert Maysles was born on November 26 1926. His brother, David, was born nearly four years later. When Albert Maysles was very young his family lived in Dorchester in Boston, Massachusetts.They later moved to the suburb of Brookline. Albert Maysles attended Syracuse University where he received a degree in psychology. He received a master’s degree from Boston University in the field and taught psychology for three years before he made his first film, the documentary short "Psychiatry in Russia" in 1955. It was followed by "Russian Close-Up" and "Youth in Poland" in 1957. "Youth in Poland" would mark the first time that Mr. Maysles worked with his brother David, who was co-director on the film. David Maysles had been working as a production assistant on Hollywood films. In 1960 Albert Maysles served as part of the film crew for Robert Drew's documentary Primary, which followed Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on their campaigns.

Albert Maysles directed portions of a 1961 edition of ABC Close-Up! entitled "Adventures on the New Frontier" that examined the daily work of President John F. Kennedy. It was in 1962 that Albert and David Maysles founded Maysles Films. The Maysles brothers directed the documentary Showman (1962), which followed Joseph E. Levine as he promoted the Sophia Loren film Two Women. Much of the Maysles' brothers' living at this point consisted of making commercials for such companies as IBM and Merrill Lynch.

The year 1964 brought the Maysles brothers one of their best known works. They documented The Beatles' first visit to the United States in 1964 with What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. The documentary would later be edited together with footage from The Beatles' first appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and released as The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit in 1991. The Maysles brothers' reputations as documentary filmmakers would be further consolidated by Salesmen, in which they followed four door to door salesmen, and Gimme Shelter, which documented The Rolling Stones' ill-fated music festival in 1969 at Altamont Speedway in California. In between they directed the documentaries With Love from Truman (1966), Orson Welles in Spain (1966), and Meet Marlon Brando (1966).

In 1974 Albert Maysles directed the first of several documentaries on controversial artist Christo, Christo's Valley Curtain (1974). It was followed by what may be the Maysles brothers' most famous documentary short of What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. and Gimme Shelter. Grey Gardens chronicled the everyday lives of  Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, two reclusive socialites who were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis respectively. Grey Gardens received critical acclaim and went onto develop a cult following. Albert Maysles ended the decade of the Seventies with Muhammad and Larry (1980), a documentary about Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes.

The Eighties would see Albert Maysles direct the television documentary Ozawa (1985), about the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, as well as the television documentary Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic (1985), about the classical pianist. He also directed  Horowitz Plays Mozart (1987)  and Jessye Norman Sings Carmen (1989). Sadly, on January 3 1987 Albert Maysles' brother David died of a stroke at the age 55. Albert Maysles would continue to work nearly three decades following his brother's death. In fact he worked up to his own.

The Nineties saw Albert Maysles direct works on a wide variety of subject matter, everything from Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit '92 to an edition of America Undercover, "Abortion: Desperate Choices". He also directed the television special Conversations with the Rolling Stones (1994) as well as the films Letting Go: A Hospice Journey (1996) and Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center (1997). Mr. Maysles continued working through the Naughts and into the Teens. He directed the television documentary LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001), about a Louisiana school district, and the films Sally Gross: The Pleasure of Stillness (2007) and Iris (2014). He also directed an editions of the TV programmes The Addiction Project, as well as the TV documentaries More Than a Paycheck: Mitchum Presents America's Hardest Workers (2010) and The Love We Make (2011). His last film, In Transit, is in post-production and due to be released this year.

Together the Maysles brothers revolutionised documentary filmmaking. Although not the first to work in  cinéma vérité, they took the form further than anyone had before them. Battery powered cameras and audio recorders had only recently been developed when the two brothers established Maysles Films, and the two of them used the new technology to get closer to their subjects than documentarians had ever been able to before. The Maysles brothers further broke with traditional documentary filmmaking in that they did not interview their subjects. Instead they simply filmed their subjects as they went about their lives, allowing their subjects' words and actions to speak for themselves. Between the closeness the Maysles brothers were able to achieve with their subjects and simply filming their subjects' lives, the Maysles' brothers were able to achieve an immediacy that was previously lacking in most documentaries.

It is for this reason that What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, and the Maysles brothers' documentaries continue to be popular to this day, even with people who don't generally like documentaries. The Maysles brothers were able to capture subjects with an immediacy, an intimacy, and even empathy as no documentarians ever had before.

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