The first he was shooting 40 years ago this very day, more or less: The Beatles were on United States soil from February 9, 1964, until February 23, and Al and David had been invited, just two hours before the band's arrival at Kennedy International Airport, to film the entirety of the band's visit for a British television documentary. David was a fan of the young band, which was then only beginning to top the pops in the States; Al, a classical fan, had never heard of the Beatles when Granada Television rang up the Maysles brothers and offered them the gig. Al and David would spend the next two weeks with John and Paul and George and Ringo, in limos and train cars and hotel rooms, documenting the transformation of oddities into stars, wide-eyed boys into wealthy men. It was, then and in retrospect, a delightful experience for Al Maysles. "It was," Al says, "sheer, positive joy."
The film that came out of those two weeks can, at last, be seen on DVD as The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit. It is not the director's cut as envisioned by Al and his late brother, who died seven years ago; they wanted to use none of the famous footage from The Ed Sullivan Show, which is readily available elsewhere. "You know how it is," Maysles says. "You make something, and it gets fucked up in the end." He hopes to get a longer version into theaters by year's end, if he can find a distributor interested in releasing the film; certainly, it seems a no-brainer.
Nonetheless, The First U.S. Visit remains a remarkable document in which the Beatles are glimpsed as young men just on the verge of immortality; imagine A Hard Day's Night without the scripted anarchy and Paul's "grandfather," without the Richard Lester nonsense that renders the Beatles four Grouchos in need of a Harpo. In the Maysles movie, they're smoking their "ciggys," singing to their own songs squeaking out of tiny transistor radio speakers, running from shrieking fans, goofing around with little kids aware they're somebodies but not quite sure which somebodies. They pose for paparazzi, give dumb-ass reporters smart-ass answers and submit to bewigged, dopey DJ Murray the K's every ridiculous request.
Al and David Maysles, like friend and co-conspirator D.A. Pennebaker in his 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back, got as close to ascending legends as their own skin; you would never again see John Lennon or Paul McCartney so silly, so at ease, so approachable...and so recognizably human.
"One thing I appreciate so much was that everything was positive about the Beatles," Maysles says now, from his office in New York City. "The lyrics were poetic, beautiful, positive, romantic, youthful, hopeful. Unlike so many groups where the music itself overwhelms the lyrics and the lyrics aren't worth hearing anyway, they were wonderful and easily understood. And everything was so positive. They weren't spoiled by their sudden rise to fame. We just saw Ringo in California, and he's still the same guy, still that youthful, upbeat personality."
Five years after spending two weeks with the Beatles, the Maysles brothers were asked to film the Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco, where a young black man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed and beaten to death by Hell's Angels. Al and David caught the whole thing in their movie Gimme Shelter, which became rock music's Zapruder film in which the viewer becomes as much participant as witness to not only the murder of a man but the death of an era that began when the Beatles' Pan Am jet touched down at JFK at 1:20 p.m. February 9, 1964.
Gimme Shelter is the gruesome autopsy, as the Stones, and especially Mick Jagger, dissect the corpse. Jagger, watching the Maysles brothers' footage, looks like he wants to vomit when Hell's Angels bossman Sonny Barger blames the "idiot" front man for the mayhem and murder that took place that day. The performances are astounding, better than any of the music barely heard in the Beatles movie, but they ultimately drown in the spilled blood. In his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, Stanley Booth wanted to know how the "Stones could go on playing and singing in the bowels of madness and violent death.'' Gimme Shelter answers the question; the camera doesn't lie.
On this 40th anniversary of the Beatles' first U.S. visit, you really should try to watch The First U.S. Visit and Gimme Shelter as a double feature. They're perfect bookends, the sunrise and sunset of an era captured by filmmakers who did nothing more than turn on their camera, which was synched to a wireless tape recorder, and stay the hell out of the way. They didn't ask questions, didn't bring lights, didn't pose anyone or move anything. Al and David made what they called "direct cinema"--direct, as in what you saw was directly from the source, edited for time but never manipulated, never phony.
"The Beatles movie is the upside, and Gimme Shelter is the downside," Maysles says. "That, I knew all along. When I think of one I think of the other. Then the next thought is, when two things happen at the same time, people tend to look for a causal relationship, and I think the Stones have taken unnecessary and improper blame for those events simply because those lyrics were the perfect orchestration for what took place. If there was no music for that movie, if it had not been about a band, and people asked, 'Who should we hire for the documentary?' they would have said, 'The Stones would be perfect.'"
The Beatles (and the Stones) could not have asked for better filmmakers to act as their shadows and reflections; Al Maysles likes to say that he gets the movies he does because he "empathizes" with his subjects, be they would-be presidents (Primary, in which the camera's trained on John Kennedy) or door-to-door Bible hawkers (Salesmen) or teeny-pop stars on the verge of a nervous breakdown (3 Days in Mexico, about, of all people, Britney Spears). He doesn't judge, doesn't ridicule, doesn't gush, but merely looks through the viewfinder, trying to make history as much as capture it before it disappears into the ether.
"Every time I see the Beatles film I am reshooting it in my head," Maysles says. "I am moving with every single moment. I must say that as I am reshooting it, my choices are not any different, and that is more satisfying than anything else. We were, and I still am, just so intent on getting everything that's going to help, selecting every moment and looking for the next. When the camera has a perceptive eye, there are things it catches that become obviously necessary for the story. Every moment is significant. Every one. "