10 Iconic Documentaries in the Career of Albert Maysles (1926 – 2015)

Though he never received the appreciation of his peers, documentarian Albert Maysles’ mark on the genre remains indelible, and important. Here are 10 reasons why.

He never won an Oscar. His only nomination came in 1974 for one of several documentaries focusing on a notorious conceptual artist and his sometimes baffling works. Yet Albert Maysles leaves behind a legacy worthy of the art form’s founding. Embracing the French concept of cinéma vérité, the late great documentary director and his equally gifted brother developed their “direct cinema” technique, playing fly-on-the-wall as personalities and events played out before them.

There was no agenda and no voice-over narration to provide a specific point of view. The Maysles let their subjects speak for themselves, and in doing so, they uncovered information a formal interview would never provide.

Albert and his younger brother David were born to Jewish immigrant parents in Boston, Massachusetts. The older sibling did not intend to be a filmmaker. He earned his degree in Arts from Boston University and taught psychology for three years. On a trip to Russia to photograph a mental hospital, Albert was struck by the potential story there. He returned the next year with a movie camera, the result being his first official documentary, 1955’s Psychiatry in Russia. From there, it was one historic documentary after another, in addition to television titles. He worked with Robert Drew as a cameraman on the influential political film Primary (1960), where he further developed his style and technique.

But it was in the late ’60s when Albert and David truly shined. Over a period of ten years, they offered overviews of Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern, the Rolling Stones, and most memorably, Big Edie and Little Edith Beale, relatives of Jackie-O. These documentaries have now become the benchmarks for the brothers’ “no interfering” style. In fact, Albert often said that it was not the documentary that was important but the people in it. With his death, an iconic figure in the world of film is gone, though the documentary style he helped invent remains a solid part of the documentary aesthetic.

With that in mind, we highlight ten pop culture milestones that Albert Maysles created and/or aided. Along with his collaborators, he showed cinephiles that the old adages – truth is stranger than fiction, being at the right place at the right time – results in fabulous, fascinating documentaries.

Meet Marlon Brando (1966)

As part of the famed ESPN 30 for 30 series, Meet Marlon Brando focuses on the swan song to one of the greatest fighters and fight careers of all time. Muhammad Ali, aging and broken, appears as cocky as ever, assured he will defeat Larry Holmes in their big bout. As the contest draws near, the Maysles make a startling discovery: both men really care for and respect each other. Thanks to the efforts of Bradley Kaplan, who compiled the previously unseen footage into a cohesive narrative, we get a peek inside the now DOA fight game and how the Maysles handled their subjects.

Letting Go: A Hospice Journey (1966)

A dying loved one is dealt with compassion in Letting Go. Having gained access to three patients and their families as they go through the traumatic process of letting their terminally ill loved ones die, Maysles (along with Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickinson) brings sympathy as well as the struggles of each individual to light. From an active 62-year-old who is suddenly days from death to a woman who believes her faith will “cure” her to a young boy in an irreversible coma, the circumstances belie the emotions involved. As usual, the filmmakers find more layers and complexities than those we expect to see.

Iris (2014)

Fashion icon and interior designer Iris Apfel invites Albert Maysles into her home to see how the aging New York City icon, famous for her work in the city’s renowned fashion industry, spends her still busy days. The result is a rip-roaring examination of creativity, work ethic, and being able to participate in a pastime you adore. Quick-witted and warm but not afraid to show off a more stern, matronly side, Apfel blossoms under Maysles’ camera lights. Her anecdotes and advice are as pertinent today as they were when she was a middle-class gal living in Queens during the Great Depression. Iris is a must-see.

Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974)

Throughout the late ’50s and up through the early ’80s, the famed conceptual artist Christo (with the help of wife and partner Jeanne-Claude) made headlines with his temporary art installations. From draping a nine-ton orange nylon veil between two mountain peaks to using six point five million square feet of pink fabric to encapsulate 11 Florida islands, Christo’s work became the embodiment of the post-modern movement in its outsider aesthetic. The Maysles were there every step of the way, documenting the trials and tribulations of his efforts for posterity. Their six collaborations mark an important moment in both art forms.

What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964)

Few in America got to see the Fab Four “unexpurgated”. From the moment they landed on US shores, their image was carefully protected to keep the fans frantic and the naysayers quiet. Luckily, the Maysles (with help) had access to the group for this no-holds-barred overview from the moment they touched down at JFK airport in New York to their triumph return to England after The Ed Sullivan Show appearance. Over five days, we see a collection of young men attempting to adjust to fame and the frenzy that follows it. More than just a look behind the scenes, What’s Happening gives viewers a glimpse of the lads themselves.

Salesmen (1969)

Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, James “The Rabbit” Baker, and Raymond “The Bull” Martos are door-to-door Bible hucksters who we watch working in and around Boston before moving onto a convention in Chicago and new – and very promising – territory: Miami. Each has earned a nickname based on their particular style of selling, and thanks to the direct cinema technique the Maysles employ, they speak for themselves in ways no narrative could decipher. It’s all about the pitch and modifying the spiel to the specific economic and education levels of those being approached. In Salesmen, we learn more about them than their product.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Gimmie Shelter is the most disturbing and direct of the two main masterpieces that make up the Maysles’ mythos. When the Rolling Stones decided to make up for being MIA at Woodstock, they planned a California concert with disaster written all over it. From venue issues to security concerns, the group hired the Maysles to capture it all, including the lethal stabbing of a concertgoer by a member of the Hells Angels. While the musical sequences are special, nothing is more compelling than the moment when the filmmakers find the crime and then show it to the members of the band. Their reactions turn the documentary from profound to priceless.

Grey Gardens (1975)

Talk about hitting the jackpot. When the Maysles read that relatives of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were living in squalor in a rundown Hamptons manor complete with holes in the roof and wildlife infestations, they immediately grabbed the cameras in order to capture the chaos. Instead, they found two fading socialites eager to pose for their lens and argue incessantly about who among them is responsible for their lack of legitimacy and fame. While Big Edie enjoys time with her cats, Little Edie thinks she can still be a Hollywood starlet. Grey Gardens‘ subjects are so compelling they became the source for books, movies, and even a musical. But it was the Maysles’ documentary that functioned as a love letter to their formidable fall from grace.