Albert Maysles made intense, oft-discussed and legendary films with his brother David, including “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter,” that pushed the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Last week, Albert Maysles passed away in his Manhattan home. He was 88.
Maysles was born in Boston in 1926, the son of a postal clerk and a school teacher. He lived in Dorchester for a short period before moving to the suburb of Brookline, where he spent most of his childhood. Despite a learning disability, Maysles made his way to Syracuse University and then Boston University, eventually earning his master’s degree in psychology. Maysles even taught psychology at Boston University for three years before he started working on documentaries and other films.
His first film was shot in the old Soviet Union in 1955. The film, “Psychiatry in Russia,” was a silent documentary. At the dawn of the 1960s, Maysles was invited to join a film crew put together by Robert Drew, which included documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. With this new group of likeminded people, Maysles went on to either act as a cinematographer or a director on films such as “Primary,” a 1960 documentary about the Democratic presidential primaries between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy; 1964’s “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.,” which followed the band on tour; and 1966’s “Meeting Marlon Brando.”
While Maysles’ film resume was vast, including covering poverty along the Mississippi Delta and Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, his legacy in the public eye lay in the 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter.” The film followed the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour and ended in violence at their infamous concert at the Altamont Speedway in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The film, partially funded by the Rolling Stones as well as commissioned by the band, was accused by critics of exploitation because of its inclusion of footage of the stabbing death of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter by members of the Hells Angels. For several months, Mick Jagger and company refused to sign a release before the film was complete.
“Gimme Shelter” wouldn’t be the last time Maysles and his brother would be accused of exploitation. Their 1975 film “Grey Gardens” followed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ eccentric relatives Edith Bouvier and her daughter, “little Edie” Bouvier Beale in their once grand (and now decrepit and squalor-filled) East Hampton, N.Y., home. Despite cries of exploitation from critics, the subjects of the film praised Albert and David Maysles and spoke of the film in a positive manner.
Albert Maysles soldiered on and made more Emmy Award-winning films, including 1985’s “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic,” 1991’s “Soldiers of Music,” about world-famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s return to Russia, and 1992’s “Abortion: Desperate Choices.” David Maysles passed away before the completion of “Soldiers of Music.”
Even late in life, Albert Maysles continued to work. Last July, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. He also released he latest documentary, “Iris,” which focused on interior decorator Iris Apfel, at the New York Film Festival in October.
Maysles also continued his collaborative nature. The Tribeca Film Festival had recently announced it would screen the world premiere of a documentary titled “In Transit,” which he directed with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu. The documentary explores the long-distance train route of the Empire Builder, one of Amtrak’s busiest long-distance routes.
The AmNews attempted to contact a spokesperson at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, which he founded in 2006, but no one could be reached for comment. He is survived by his wife, Gillian Walker, his son, Philip, his two daughters, Rebekah and Sara, and stepdaughter, Auralice Graft.