With his brother David, Albert Maysles helped revolutionize both the documentary and film in general. Through the innovative use of portable cameras and sound equipment, which they helped design, they found a way to take their cameras to the streets, creating the naturalistic cinema-verité style. Working apart from his brother, Albert Maysles collaborated with D.A. Pennebaker and others in following the Kennedy/ Humphrey Wisconsin primary with the 1960 film Primary and collaborated with Jean-Luc Godard for his segment of the anthology film Six In Paris. But he remains best known for his work with David, who died in 1987. Together, they followed The Beatles' first visit to America (with What's Happening!: The Beatles In The U.S.A.) and examined such elusive characters as Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali, Christo, and Truman Capote. Their most widely remembered films remain Salesman, a look at the soul-crushing life of Bible salesmen; Grey Gardens, a controversial study of a mother-daughter team of New England eccentrics related to Jacqueline Kennedy; and Gimme Shelter a chronicle of the '69 Rolling Stones tour of America that culminated in a free concert at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Staged as one of several responses to Woodstock, Altamont has taken on almost mythic qualities: As the day progressed, a hostile environment developed among musicians, fans, and the security team, a group of Hell's Angels who partook liberally of alcohol and other substances despite their duties. As The Rolling Stones played "Under My Thumb," the Angels killed Meredith Hunter, a black concert attendee who had apparently been taunting them with a gun. In the singularly harrowing Gimme Shelter now being reissued in theaters and later on video, the Maysles Brothers captured the event on camera. Albert Maysles recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the film and his career.
The Onion: Whose idea was it to cover the '69 Rolling Stones tour?
Albert Maysles: My brother and myself.
O: Why The Rolling Stones and why then?
AM: Well, we didn't know the Stones that well, the music or them. We'd never met them. But a very good friend of mine, the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, had been talking to them about a film. And I guess that didn't work out. He called us in San Francisco and said they were going to be in New York at the Plaza Hotel the next day, and that we might want to make a film with them. So we met them, and it just so happened that the next evening they had a concert in Baltimore. So we rushed off to Baltimore, and we thought they were terrific, of course. And we had a hunch, and that's all we could go on, that it would be more than a concert film. We didn't want to make a concert film; that wouldn't be enough. So, a few days later, we spent a couple of days filming them at Madison Square Garden and got really excited. Then we went to Muscle Shoals and Altamont, and after that we made a brief trip to England, and then did the filming of them watching the playback.
O: One of the most striking things about the film is how the mood of Altamont feels like a disaster in the making even before the bands play. Did you get that sense at the time, or is it something only seen in retrospect?
AM: I didn't get it, but Keith [Richards] is such a perceptive person: As we were approaching Altamont in the middle of the night, walking across the field we came across a fence and began to pull down the fence so we could climb over it. That's where he came up with the expression, "The first act of violence." And it happened later on.
O: It seems like a strange film to market, particularly as a re-release, because it's such a harrowing thing to watch.
AM: Somehow, I can't explain it, but maybe above all Gimme Shelter is a film you have to see over and over and over again. You can never get enough of it. Which is something of an irony, because you think, well… Suppose you saw an earthquake, for example. You see a little bit of it on television and you don't want to see any more. But here, there's too much going on. Every time you see this film, I think you see something you missed before. For example, the killing scene is kind of like that film Blow-Up. With Blow-Up, it's just a simple thing, a man in a bush. Here, you've got to wonder, when you see this scene, what's going on in the minds of each of the people who are around the killing. It must have occurred to many people, and it certainly occurred to me. Could anyone have stopped it? You can't see enough of this frightful, awful experience in one sitting. When the film was over, I wasn't sure—none of us were—that we'd gotten the murder. Finally, I hit upon it and just ran it over and over, slowly, frame by frame.
O: Was it ever fully determined exactly what happened?
AM: There have been various stories. It's pretty clear that Meredith Hunter was not the totally innocent victim that you might want to think, if only because he was killed. He was apparently taunting the Hell's Angels with a gun.
O: The reissued film is billed as featuring footage censored from the original release. What's new and why was it censored?
AM: There was a shot, for example, of a bare-breasted young woman hoisted above the crowd. It was a lovely shot, but at that time we wanted everybody to see the film. If that shot had been in there, young people wouldn't be able to see the film. Then there were a few profanities. The other big change is that the sound is better.
O: Altamont is frequently cited as the symbolic end of the '60s, as if history made it happen more than any specific forces. Do you think it had to happen that way, or do you attribute it to specific causes like the hiring of the Hell's Angels?
AM: Part of the film is that we were able to get the whole story, and get it in a very balanced way. Only six months before, there was Woodstock, and that film was pre-conceived as, "Oh, aren't we all wonderful? We're the flower generation and everything is hunky-dory. Let's go do some interviews where we get that." And all the questions in the interviews were along the lines of, "Isn't it wonderful?" The film doesn't mention that people were killed in accidents. Everything seems to come up roses. And it just wasn't that way, entirely. I was there. Can you imagine at Woodstock, with all those drugs? Probably 20 or 30 thousand people at Woodstock were stoned, suffering from the ill effects of drugs, just as there were at Altamont. We were totally open to record whatever we would see.
O: One of the trademarks of your approach to filmmaking is to take a step back and let whatever is happening happen. As one of the pioneers of cinema verité, how conscious were you of creating a new style at the time?
AM: It was a new style, but we also wanted to expand the documentary form from the television half-hour and hour into a full feature. Up until we shot Salesman, which was four years before Gimme Shelter, nobody made a documentary that could be called any more than a feature-length film. This was a feature film.
O: Were you surprised to see the verité style's influence outside of the documentary?
AM: We were so intent on doing our own thing that we didn't pay much attention to that. But we noticed that A Hard Day's Night was very, very heavily influenced by our film, What's Happening!: The Beatles In New York City. As was The Monkees. And I was just reading the other day that Martin Scorsese cites us as an influence. I think it's been a trend over the years for Hollywood not to give up its aesthetic of grandeur and expense, but to make things look more realistic. You look at an old film and it's dated, because the cameras are fixed on tripods and there's not the freedom of movement that you have today. But still, you don't get the realism on screen. It's only when it's really real that you get that. I made a film with Jean-Luc Godard in 1963, and he's one of those people who knows how to do that. He carried it to a wonderful extreme by setting everything up and then bringing me into a scene I was not familiar with in any way. And I filmed it with a camera on my shoulder, the way I would a documentary.
O: Getting back to Gimme Shelter, how much do you think your film played into creating the myth of Altamont as the end of the '60s?
AM: I don't know that people were that much aware of it without that film. I'm told that the '60s in a sense didn't really come to an end until a couple of years into the '70s. So it may be something of an exaggeration to say that everything ended with that film. In a way, we not only captured history, but made it. I do remember at the time that many of the reports were not substantiated by the facts, but the film has held up like the Rock Of Gibraltar. People would turn it around. Meredith Hunter was holding the knife. Black guys were supposed to have knives because that was the stereotype. People would have it reversed. It would be more appropriate for the killing to take place during "Sympathy For The Devil." That wasn't the case: It was "Under My Thumb." Stuff like that. We got it right.