Albert Maysles, the director who, alongside his brother David, revolutionized documentary filmmaking, died at the age of 88 Thursday night. The filmmaker had been battling pancreatic cancer recently and had fallen ill last month.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our father, following a brief battle with cancer,” Maysles’ family said in a statement. “Albert was a loving husband, father, brother as well as a friend to many. For more than five decades, Albert created groundbreaking films, inspired filmmakers and touched all those with his humanity, presence and his belief in the power of love. He was also a teacher, mentor and a source of inspiration for countless filmmakers, artists and everyday people.”
A former psychologist, Maysles’ first film — 1955’s Psychiatry in Russia — detailed the state of mental illness in Soviet mental hospitals. In the early 1960s, the brothers formed Maysles Films, helming movies about film executive Joe Levine (Showman) and Orson Welles (Orson Welles in Spain) before documenting the Beatles’ debut trip to the United States in The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit.
But it was with 1968’s Salesman, the story of door-to-door Bible salesmen canvassing Boston and Florida, that gave the duo their first classic. Building off the cinematic style of Jean Rouch and Dziga Vertov, Salesman pioneered cinéma vérité, the observational strain of documentary filmmaking that eschews narrative voiceover in favor of fly-on-the-wall, non-judgmental spectating.
The brothers would return to music for their next feature Gimme Shelter, the engrossing story of the Rolling Stones’ ill-fated 1969 concert at Altamont. Filming from the stage as the band played, the duo captured the murder of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old fan who was killed by the Hells Angels; their portrait of violence and chaos at Altamont Speedway became an epitaph for the optimistic, late-Sixties movement. Maysles was also a cinematographer behind iconic music documentaries such as 1968’s Monterey Pop and 1977’s The Grateful Dead Movie.
In 1975, while making a film on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ younger sister Lee Radziwill, the brothers met Edith Bouvier Beale, Onassis’ free-spirited cousin, and her mother, affectionately known as “Big Edie.” The Maysles scrapped their planned film on Radziwill and began to film Grey Gardens, the story of Big and Little Edie living in squalor in their near-condemned Long Island mansion.
The Beales’ penchant for disagreement and eccentricity made them cult heroes, with the film remaining a beloved camp classic. When influential film magazine Sight and Sound released their inaugural list of the Greatest Documentaries of All Time, Grey Gardens was listed at Number Nine. “Imagine if John Waters shot a script by Tennessee Williams and it was broadcast in a TV slot usually reserved for The Hoarder Next Door or How Clean Is Your House?” the list’s authors wrote. (Salesman and Gimme Shelter also appeared on the list.) Albert Maysles had just finished consulting on the film’s upcoming 40th anniversary re-release.
After his filmmaking partner and younger brother David passed away in 1987 following a stroke, Albert continued to helm dozens of documentaries on everything from French artist Christo (1990’s Christo in Paris — his second film on the artist following 1974’s Christo’s Valley Curtain) to Rufus Wainwright (2009’s Rufus Wainwright – Milwaukee at Last). In 2001, Wainwright penned the song “Grey Gardens” as an homage to Maysles’ film.
His last released film, 2011’s The Love We Make, chronicled Paul McCartney’s 2001 appearance at the Concert for New York following the attacks on the World Trade Center. The film premiered on September 10th, 2011, almost exactly 10 years after the attacks. “There’s no anger in this film,” Maysles told Rolling Stone in 2011. “It’s all an attempt to understand and to repair whatever the damage was by being so kind to these people.”
Iris, Maysles’ final completed film about 93-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel, is scheduled for limited release next month before a national release in May. In Transit, Maysles’ film about America as seen through riders on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
“Our dear friend Albert Maysles passed away last night at the age of 88,” the Criterion Collection, the video company that distributed many of Maysles’ films, wrote on Facebook Friday. “We saw things through his lens that we will never forget. He was a filmmaker up until the end. We loved him and will miss him terribly.”