Arts and Culture

Albert Maysles, King of the Rock Doc

The genius documentary maker on Mick Jagger, concert mayhem, emotional honesty, and more.

By Steve Burgess 28 May 2010 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other Friday on The Tyee.

Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles tells the following story about shadowing the Rolling Stones: "I saw Mick go off with one of the groupies who had been traveling with the Stones. When she came back later, her girlfriend was all excited, asking, 'How was it?' And she answered, 'It was OK. But he was no Mick Jagger.'"

A great story. But then Maysles has had a few years to polish it. It's been 40 years since Albert and his brother David released Gimme Shelter, a document of the Stone's infamous Altamont Speedway festival. David Maysles died in 1987, but at 83 years old Albert is still bright-eyed and busy, slinging quips and making plans. Last month Maysles was at Pacific Cinematheque for screenings of Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, the brothers' 1975 depiction of mother and daughter Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, two oddball relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Those and other films made the Maysles brothers the acknowledged masters of the fly-on-the-wall documentary style, whereby viewers become witness to scenes of astonishing intimacy.

Not that Maysles wants to be insectified. "'Fly on the wall' is an unfortunate expression," he told the Cinematheque crowd. "A fly sees everything and nothing in particular. There's no awareness. My wife is a therapist, and she explained the professional philosophy to me: 'The therapist establishes a gaze -- there is confidence and love in the eyes. That love persists throughout the therapy.' That's how we worked too. [Filming Grey Gardens], there was a great deal of love. We got so close to those women that people thought we were exploiting them. But when Edie saw it, she said, 'The Maysles have created a classic!' Later she was asked if she had anything else to say about the relationship and she answered, "The film says it all.'"

"You have to be honest that you are an element there. But there's a way of doing it so you don't change anything essential. It's easier for people to be themselves than to act. If I see someone putting on a show I'll put the camera down until it passes."

"It's really the opposite of Michael Moore, who's out to get people. He'd get further if he had affection for them and tried to understand them."

Death and glory

Thanks to Gimme Shelter, the 1964 film What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA, and 1968's Monterey Pop, the Maysles established themselves as the premier chroniclers of '60s rock and roll. But they didn't exactly rush into it starry-eyed. "When we were asked to do the 1964 film my brother and I asked, 'Who are the Beatles?' And later we asked, 'Who are the Rolling Stones?'"

The films they created would help to answer those questions. But the brothers' most famous documentary almost didn't see the light of day. It took six months and a lot of coaxing before Jagger agreed to grant clearance for the release of Gimme Shelter. Not surprising. Once revealed, it would prove to be a chronicle of hubris as the Stones endeavour to create their own version of Woodstock.

Altamont was a huge free concert outside San Francisco in December 1969, also featuring the Jefferson Airplane, Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the Grateful Dead. A last-minute venue change leads to logistical headaches, but the real trouble comes from the security. The Stones hire the local chapter of the Hell's Angels, apparently promising them free beer and a chance to sit on the stage. They do much more. Angels swinging pool cues create mayhem in the crowd. The Airplane's Marty Balin gets knocked cold by a Hell's Angel during the band's set; when Grace Slick complains, another Angel grabs a microphone to threaten the group.

It goes downhill from there. Some of the film footage would later be introduced as evidence at the murder trial of Hell's Angel Alan Passaro, accused of stabbing Meredith Hunter to death near the stage while the Stones sing "Under My Thumb." (Passaro would be acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, since Hunter can be seen pulling a gun just before Passaro attacks.)

Among the crew on that fateful shoot: a young George Lucas. "He did the shots near the end of the film where people are climbing down the hillside," Maysles said.

Next up?

Coming less than six months after its more celebrated predecessor, Altamont has been described as the death of the naïve peace-and-love dream known as the "Woodstock Generation." While Maysles does feel Altamont was a cultural watershed, he also believes that Woodstock was really no Woodstock. "We turned down a chance to make that movie," he recalled. "The Woodstock film looked at the festival through rose-coloured glasses. If we had done that movie it would have looked very different, believe me."

Maysles is still working -- recent films include a contribution to ESPN's 30 for 30 series recalling the 1980 Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali fight. And he's still friendly with his old mates. In fact, the Cinematheque audience was told of one possible Maysles project: a documentary focusing on Keith Richards as he attempts to explain his personal history to his daughter. Sounds like a long movie.

Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens are available at video stores throughout British Columbia  [Tyee]

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