Albert and David Maysles

The Annotated “Rock Docs” Radio Special

by Rick Ouellette

Last month, I was honored to be interviewed by DJ Bob Dubrow of WMBR-FM 88.1 in Cambridge, Mass. to talk about my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Why honored, you ask? Because Bob is not just your average guy blabbing with some local scribbler with a book to peddle. He interviews (on a regular basis) many of your favorite musicians from the Sixties and Seventies, which is the focal point of the “Lost and Found” show which airs on “the Big 88” every weekday from noon-2PM (Bob is usually in the Tuesday slot). Your humble blogger and indie author was preceded the previous week by Bob Cowsill of the famous singing family and was followed by Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) and Paul Rodgers (Free/Bad Company) the next two Tuesdays.

You can click the link below to hear the whole two-hour show or, if you’re pressed for time like most people, I will break it down into sections so you can jump ahead to certain interview segments or songs. Please note, however, that you can’t rewind on this slider. Also, check out Bob’s many great past interviews by visiting his MixCloud page at https://www.mixcloud.com/bob-dubrow/

For about the first four minutes, I get to talk a little bit about myself and how I came to write the book, while you become acclimated to my velvety radio voice 😉. Bob arranged the show to revolve around the work of various directors who have made the filming of rock music subjects a facet of their careers. I thought this was a good idea as it shows that from the beginning of the books timeline (1964) there were serious filmmakers recording performances and depicting real-life events of musical artists that were shaping a major cultural shift of the 20th century.


David (left) and Albert Maysles filming Mick Jagger during the making of Gimme Shelter.

First up, we discuss David and Albert Maysles (at the 5:00 mark) who were hired to film The Beatles First U.S. Visit only a couple of hours before the group’s plane landed in New York in February of 1964. The notion of rock mass-media was so new that the Maysles were giving full-access, sight unseen, by the Beatles management, giving us an up close look at this now-legendary event, which today would have a virtual army of handlers attached to it. The other two parts of rock’s great triumvirate (the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) were also committed to non-fiction celluloid before 1964 was out: the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show and Dylan at the Newport Folk Fest. Director Murray Lerner in fact, filmed at Newport for several years and compiled his highlights in the 1967 doc Festival!

At 14:10, Bob plays Dylan’s very plugged-in version of Maggie’s Farm from Newport 1965 that has gone down in legend (and is seen in the Festival! film). So many rumors have surrounded this watershed Dylan-goes-electric moment—did Pete Seeger try to cut the cord with an axe, was Bobby booed off stage—that Mr. Dubrow’s anecdote he learned from an interview with Newport participant producer Joe Boyd gives an fascinating spin on this famous tale.

Discussion of the work of Murray Lerner continues with his film Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (at 28:45), his outstanding doc of that 1970 event attended by 600,000 people but, because of funding issues, not released until 1997. Bob plays a song not seen in the original film, Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” preceded by some typically esoteric stage banter from the bard of Montreal.


Leonard Cohen at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival

The crucial role of documentary makers in preserving the counterculture experience for posterity—the good, the bad an the ugly—is discussed (at 28:45) in the section about the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, about the Stone’s 1969 US tour that ended in the calamitous Altamont festival. At 32:15, Bob cues up the disheveled version of “Under My Thumb” during which the Hell’s Angels murdered a gun-brandishing audience member.

A discussion of the venerable American documentarian D.A. Pennebaker starts at 38:35. Pennebaker (like the Maysles) was an adherent of the new Direct Cinema and their fly-on-the-wall methods often yielded startling results, like D.A.’s bracing classic Don’t Look Back. At 38:35, Dylan’s defiant version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from his 1966 UK tour (also controversial with the folkie purists).

At 47:30, we discuss another Pennebaker film (and my all-time favorite rockumentary) Monterey Pop and after that Bob Plays a couple of songs from that beatific Summer of Love event, one at 51:27 from Buffalo Springfield (from a DVD extra) and one from the legendary set by Otis Redding (at 54:20). Also, he plays a song from a later Pennebaker film shot in 1973, the title song from the David Bowie concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.


Among the legendary performances captured by Pennebaker at Monterey Pop, the Who’s “smashing” version “My Generation” ranks near the top.

At 1:03:25 the name Peter Whitehead comes up. Though not a household name in the States, Whitehead produced several music videos for the Rolling Stones (as well as the first film about them 1965’s Charlie is MY Darling)
His most lasting effort is probably the free-form Swinging London opus “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London From that film’s soundtrack we hear the part of a wild live-in-studio jam on “Interstellar Overdrive” by the original Pink Floyd (founder Syd Barrett was a friend of Whitehead).

Another British director, Tony Palmer, met John Lennon when the Beatles visited Cambridge University where he was a student. (Starting at 1:10:30) He ended up at the BBC where he used his Beatle connection to be introduced to many of the rock stars that would appear in his musical-sociological study All My Loving. He would film the final show of one of the bands featured. From Cream: The Farewell Concert Bob plays a great version of their hit “Sunshine of Your Love.”

The next filmmaker on the docket (at 1:27:30) is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, known for capturing England’s two most prominent bands at the end of the Sixties. From the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus we get the one-night-only supergroup The Dirty Macs (with Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards) doing “Yer Blues” (at 1:29:50) and from the Beatles swan-song doc Let it Be Bob plays “I’ve Got a Feeling” from the rooftop concert.


The Beatles in “Let it Be.” Though the film depicts the fraying of the group’s unity that would lead to their breakup, the film is redeemed by the rooftop concert. From the book: Like a pack of squabbling brothers who find themselves in better temper after obeying a parent’s order to “go out and get some fresh air,” the mood of the film brightens as soon as the band emerges from the stairwell onto the rooftop. It may have been a chilly, overcast London afternoon but as soon as they launch into the remonstrative rocker “Get Back” the Beatles seem warmed up to the idea that they are out there to prove themselves. A month’s worth of studio work was not in vain.

Of course, no discussion about classic rock docs can be complete without Woodstock, which made Warner Bros. a ton of money while also being good enough to take the Oscar for Documentary Feature in 1970. It’s true, as Bob points: what hasn’t been said about this iconic film. But I hope, we added a few new insights here and there about these films in general. Hopefully, the time and care I put into making this book more of “journey” through fifty years of music and lives, transcending the (still useful and user-friendly) anthology format. So if interested, click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see the index and the first 20+ pages of the text.

You can check out the excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Documentary Spotlight: Albert Maysle’s “In Transit”

On Labor Day weekend, at the end of a summer season that was among the most divisive in modern American history, I slipped into the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square for a well-attended screening of Albert Maysles’ final film, In Transit. The nominal subject is Amtrak’s popular Empire Builder route between Chicago and Seattle. But it’s more about the human connections made possible by the relaxed close proximity of passengers and staff on a train moving over great distances. I came out of it more hopeful about the future than I probably had the right to be, considering the rise of racial extremism, political putrefaction and the torturous first months in office of a president whose every waking hour seems dedicated to narcissism and ill will.

Albert Maysles, who died at age 88 in March of 2015, will always be remembered for the great documentaries of the Sixties and Seventies he made with his brother David, who passed away in 1987. Chief among these, of course, was Salesman, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. The brothers were also instrumental in the advent of the rock film when they were the first to film the Beatles on their First U.S. Visit (as it was later known on DVD). To find out more on this story, see the review in the excerpt of my book ROCK DOCS, by clicking on the cover image in the right hand column.

The Maysles were known for being in the right place at the right time and this is also the case with Albert’s last work, made with co-directors Lynn True, David Usul, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu. Trump may not have president yet when the film was produced (it debuted in 2015 and is only in limited release even now) but America’s deep socio-political fault lines were already a much covered subject by then. In Transit is a compact (only 76 minutes long) and very welcome update on the idea that the cause of human diplomacy, and the betterment of the human condition, is best achieved when conditions are optimal.


A great fatherly pronouncement: “There’s part of the human spirit that will not be snuffed out.”

So it is here. As opposed to the isolation of car trips, or the increasingly frustrating and cramped nature of air travel, unhurried long-distance train rides lend themselves to both contemplation aided by passing scenery and social mingling by passengers free to roam the aisles. And this is what happens, in a style that could be called enhanced cinema verite. The subjects know they are being filmed but Maysles’ trademark unobtrusive style keeps them at their ease. A look at the trailer below will give you a good idea of the film’s thoughtful tone. People are trying to find themselves or lose themselves, others are coming from or going to meet-ups with relatives, friends and potential partners with various degrees of optimism or apprehension. Some are living out old-fashioned notions of romantic travel while still others are looking for better employment opportunities, in this case mostly in the North Dakota oil fields. Everybody is “in transit” in more ways than one.

What you don’t get in this exceptionally serene film is any sense of the distressing breakdown of civility that has been exacerbated by the anonymity and callousness that so often defines our frazzled online age. The fleeting friendship between an older white ex-soldier with PTSD and a young and very pregnant black woman fleeing a bad relationship to deliver her baby near her family in Minneapolis is one of several touching encounters that. It unpretentiously shows the value of empathetic conversation and self-reflection that otherwise may have turned to fodder for the free-ranging resentments of social media’s darker forces. The Empire Builder may start and end in the blue states of Illinois and the Pacific Northwest while travelling thru several very red states, but here at least the rips in the social fabric seem to have the potential to be sewn back together a bit by nothing so revolutionary as a face-to-face coming to terms, both with your fellow citizen-passengers and the face that’s reflected back to you when looking out at the wide open spaces of the world we inhabit. What a wonderful parting gift from Mr. Maysles

The Beatles meet the Maysles, 7 Feb 1964

first US

The review below taken From “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film”
Now on sale: http://booklocker.com/books/6965.html (This author page has an extended book excerpt. Also available from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com)

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The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit
Albert and David Maysles—1964/1991—83 minutes

It was only ten weeks after the assassination of President John Kennedy. With the pall of national tragedy still in the air that winter, the filmmaking team of Albert and David Maysles got a call from Granada Television in England saying a musical group named the Beatles were arriving in New York in a couple of hours and would they mind heading down and maybe getting some footage? Albert was a bit nonplussed but younger brother David was more hip to the current pop scene and sensed the opportunity. After negotiating a deal right there on the phone, the light-traveling duo were on their way to recently renamed John F. Kennedy Airport, getting there just in time for the famous moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hesitated a moment at the top of the steps while leaving the plane, realizing that the hordes of people lining the balcony of the terminal were there for them and not some head of state as they first thought. And just like that the Maysles brothers found themselves in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural moments. The First U.S. Visit is a 1991 re-edit of the original ’64 film (called “What’s Happening: The Beatles in the U.S.A.”) that adds more music and excises some interview material. But both versions pull the viewer right into the middle of the tumultuous birth of 1960s youth culture. It also features the Beatles performing thirteen unedited songs, from both a Washington, D.C., concert and the epochal Ed Sullivan Show TV appearances.

beatles in Miami
Twisting by the pool in Miami Beach, 1964

The Beatles were poised for big things and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (their first widely distributed single in the U.S.) had hit #1 two weeks previous. Early segments show famed DJ Murray the K in his studio hyping them up but establishment media were often belittling in their opinions and their long-term prospects in America were uncertain. At the airport press conference they quickly charm the jaded New York press corps with their contagious high spirits and sharp wit, then are whisked off to Manhattan and to a rock ’n’ roll superstardom never to be equaled. Although a few hours before they had hardly heard of the Fab Four, the filmmakers found themselves squished into the back of a limo with the confident but still nonplussed band members. Arriving at the Plaza Hotel, we get the first dose of Beatlemania up close with fans pounding on the window, the boys dashing from the car to the lobby door, and the scenes of police struggling to keep back the hordes, all soon to become iconic images of the decade. Two nights later, on February 9, 1964, the band would make television history with 73 million people tuning in to Sullivan’s Sunday-night showcase. The Maysles brothers would tag along for the next five days with unfettered access and whether it’s the boys goofing around in hotel rooms, dancing at the Peppermint Lounge, or getting photographed in Central Park, the camera never seems more than a few feet away from the action.

When it’s time to head south for the D.C. concert, the whole entourage takes the train like it is no big deal and the band jovially mingles with the other passengers. The group here is shown at a giddy apex of fame just before becoming imprisoned by their own celebrity. And although the performances on Sullivan’s show seem as fresh and buoyant as ever, the gig at the old Washington Coliseum may be the musical highlight here. Playing from a makeshift stage in the middle of the arena, the group is surrounded by the deafening din of screaming girls but cut through the pandemonium with a manic energy unseen on the tube. “I Saw Her Standing There” rocks with an almost punkish jolt and Ringo gets a rare concert lead vocal during a likewise frenetic “I Wanna Be Your Man.” The sight of the four of them having to turn around their own amps and rotate the drum riser to play to a different part of the house couldn’t be quainter—roadies weren’t even invented yet!

The Beatles raise the roof on the Washington Coliseum, Feb. 11th, 1964

Ed Sullivan is waiting down in Miami Beach, ready to introduce these “fine youngsters” for the second of the three consecutive weeks on his show. Although the Maysles brothers’ time with the Beatles ended down there, also included is their return appearance (taped earlier) at the regular New York location for week three on Sullivan (with a farewell rave-up of “Twist and Shout” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and a bit of their departure and triumphal airport reception back in London.

The filmmakers’ methods seem to point the way to one of rock’s most celebrated films, “A Hard Day’s Night”, which started filming a month after the group’s return. That movie’s director, Richard Lester, carefully crafted a pseudo-documentary feel and a few notable scenes, like the mob-besieged Beatles running to their catch their train before being eaten alive, were not staged but done spontaneously, a bit of cinematic verisimilitude not appreciated by the band. “What’s Happening!” (as it was still known) was a great feather in the cap for the Maysles brothers. With an eerie symmetry, these Johnny-on-the-spot filmmakers would close out the 1960s with “Gimme Shelter”, unwittingly filming the dark flip side of the scene the Beatles created while following a late 1969 tour by the Rolling Stones.