Documentary Filmmaker Albert Maysles Dies at 88

The Oscar nominee and Emmy winner teamed with his late brother David on 'Gimme Shelter,' 'Grey Gardens' and 'Salesman.'

Albert Maysles, who collaborated along with his late brother David in a documentary career that included the troubling 1970 concert film 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. He had been battling cancer. 

Gimme Shelter — which chronicled the 1969 Rolling Stones tour that culminated in the Altamont Free Concert, at which a fan brandishing a gun was stabbed to death by a Hells Angels security man — stood as a stark and more enduring counterpoint to the documentary Woodstock, a depiction of the glorified 1969 free concert whose own dark side was left out in its preconceived, 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, N.Y. 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.

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 handheld camera and shotgun mike — was in the tradition of such documentarians as Frederick Wiseman.

However, cinema verite “purists” argued that the Maysles 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 the horrific memory of Altamont still fresh, Gimme Shelter punctuated a feeling of dread as the events moved inexorably to the tour's cataclysmic end. Originally, the “free concert” was supposed to take place in San Francisco, but logistics couldn't be worked out 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 Maysles 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.

Albert Maysles 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.

He also was the choreographer on Monterey Pop (1968), the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the celebrated music festival that featured electrifying performances from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

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.

Laura Poitras, Oscar-winning director of Citizenfour, mourned the director. 

"This is a tragic loss for filmmakers around the world. Al touched so many lives with his camera," Poitras said in a statement. "Through his lens he expressed profound empathy for the people he filmed. I first saw Gimme Shelter when I was 14 and it changed my life. His work inspired generations of filmmakers, and paved new ground for non-fiction storytelling. His body of work is as vital today as it was the day it was released. This is a very sad day. Al will be deeply missed."

He was born Nov. 26, 1926, in Boston and raised in nearby Brookline, Mass. 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 the country. 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 résumé.” They subsequently won a Guggenheim Fellowship in Experimental Film.

11:18 a.m., March 6 A previous version of this story identified the Maysles brothers as the directors of Monterey Pop (1968). The film was directed by D.A. Pennebaker.

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