Gimme Shelter is one of the only movies that has ever truly frightened me, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Albert and David Maysles' 1970 Rolling Stones documentary is thrilling and impossible to replicate: a part-genius, part-serendipitous occurrence of the right filmmakers being in the right place at the right time — or perhaps the worst time. The film followed the Stones on their notorious 1969 U.S. tour, culminating in the stabbing of 18 year old Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Festival. "Altamont" is now shorthand for collapse; it's entirely likely that moment wouldn't have been as seared in history without Albert Maysles' camera, his jittery telephoto lens searching the chaos of the scene from the back of an ill-constructed stage.
The Maysles brothers made over 20 films together; Albert went on to direct many more after his brother's death in 1987. Albert was the cameraman, David was the sound guy, and together they were two flies on the walls of some of the most defining moments of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and they became regarded as singular curators of human experiences, using the documentary not as a pulpit for their own agendas and theories, but as a conduit for other peoples' stories. It didn't matter if those people were rock stars, traveling Bible salesmen, or the forgotten footnotes of an era, as with Grey Gardens, perhaps their most well-known film, which documented the reclusive, dyfunctional lives of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis' aunt and cousin. The Maysles had an innate sense of when and where to be and the humility and good sense to let their subjects tell the stories.
From time to time the Maysles were accused of exploitation, particularly in the case of Gardens. Cinema verite is a double-edged sword, and the Maysles encountered that edge decades before the internet became flooded with videos of people brawling in 7-Eleven. But they also allowed as unfettered a glance into the lives of others as was possible at the time and helped define the language of modern documentary film.
Albert Maysles passed away yesterday in New York. He was 88.