No shortlist of pioneering documentary filmmakers is complete without the Maysles Brothers, David and Albert, who together made direct cinema giants like “Salesman” (1968), “Gimme Shelter” (1970) and “Grey Gardens” (1975). David died of a stroke in 1987. Now Albert, who carried on their legacy, has passed, according to the Criterion Collection’s Facebook page. He was 88.
The Maysles were part of the first batch of enterprising young filmmakers — among them D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Robert Drew — who took advantage of the introduction, in the late 1950s, of lightweight, 16mm cameras that could record synch sound. Now reality could more easily be recorded, and the old method of restaging if not outright creating “non-fiction” — as Robert Flaherty (“Nanook of the North”) sometimes did — could make way for a more accurate and pure depiction of reality (that’s still polluted by the presence of filmmakers, but that’s for another article).
Among the Maysles’ initial documentaries were short profiles of Orson Welles, Marlon Brando and mega-producer Joseph E. Levine. They were also lucky to get hipped to the arrival in America of The Beatles, which resulted in 1964’s “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA” — a corrective, if you will, to the more polished and absurdist quasi-fiction version that was Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” that actually showed them smoking and not always cracking jokes.
It was with 1968’s “Salesman” — which ran around with bible salesmen — that they went next level, establishing the notoriety that would net them the job that became “Gimme Shelter.” They were there with cameras to document the notorious Rolling Stones-headlined Altamont concert in 1969 that ended with a man stabbed to death — an act caught however fleetingly on film.