For many, the sixties began on February 7th 1964, when four British kids with pudding basin haircuts exited their Pan Am jet at New York’s JFK Airport and received a rapturous welcome into the hearts of a generation. Footage of the Beatles’ American arrival is among the most enduring pieces of film in history, and Albert Maysles was the man behind the camera. Exactly fifty years later, the filmmaker reflects on what it was like to capture the start of a cultural love affair that continues to this day.
Mr. Maysles is a man who hardly needs an introduction. Partnered with his brother David recording sound, the pair are responsible for some of the most influential and well-loved documentary films ever committed to celluloid. Grey Gardens, Salesman and Gimme Shelter are the most famous, but their canon goes much further. They’ve worked with icons of every stripe, including silver screen legends Marlon Brando and Orson Welles, athletic hero Muhammad Ali, art-world giants Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and literary laureate Truman Capote…just to name a few. Obviously Albert Maysles has a wealth of stories, but people are still quick to ask about that windy morning on an airport tarmac half a century earlier, when America met the Beatles. At the time, he had no idea that the shockwaves from this event would still be felt decades later. In fact, he didn’t even know who these guys were.
“I got a call from Granada Television in England saying, ’The Beatles are arriving in two hours. Would you like to make a film of them?’ So I put my hand over the phone and I said to my brother, ’Who are the Beatles?'” He still laughs recalling the memory of a pre-Fab Four existence. Thankfully his brother David was an early Beatles convert, and soon a deal was made to produce what was to become What’s Happening! The Beatles In The U.S.A. “We rushed over to the airport just in time to see the plane coming down.”
It would take several lifetimes to forget the incredible scene that greeted Maysles as he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport, recently renamed for the young president who had been gunned down just eleven weeks earlier. Hoards of teenagers packed the terminal and spilled onto the gate, some brandishing homemade signs or copies of the just-released Meet The Beatles album. In the wake of the recent national tragedy, young people needed a reason to celebrate. It was America’s first symptoms of Beatlemania. “I was swallowed up by all the shouting and screaming and love that the young women were expressing,” Maysles tells us. “People didn’t know whether there would be five people arriving or five thousand. I think there were five or ten thousand youngsters all excited about the Beatles, who we hadn’t met yet. But this was it. This was their opportunity.”
It sounds dangerous to be caught in a crossfire hurricane of hysterical teenagers, but Maysles insists that he never felt unsafe. “The innocent part is what took over. There was innocence at the heart of the Beatles, and in all the people that joined in.” The foursome looked stunned as they waved their way down the airplane steps, stepping into a new and uncharted phase of their career. In Mr. Maysles’ words, “It started a whole new adventure.”
For the Maysles brothers, this new adventure would last for the next two weeks while they served as the official documentarians on the Fab Four’s maiden tour of the United States. In addition to the group’s frenzied arrival, the brothers documented their era-defining debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and first American concerts. Their incredible level of access, unthinkable in today’s PR-savvy world, also meant that the Maysles preserved priceless private moments between the four old mates from Liverpool. From besieged limos, suites at Manhattan’s glitzy Plaza Hotel, nightclub dance floors, and backstage dressing rooms -where the Beatles went, the brothers followed as their camera-wielding shadows. For anyone who loves the band, it sounds like pure fantasy.
It’s not every day that we speak to someone who’s been granted access to the Beatles’ inner sanctum, so we can’t stop ourselves from blurting out: What were they like? “Well, I can’t say much more than what I got through my camera. They never asked me to do this or do that. They were totally open, and they were fully cooperative. So I felt like I really got them and an authentic feel of them.”
And from Maysles’ account, the Beatles were authentically hams. “They did a lot of acting for the camera, which is usually something that we don’t like and somehow try to turn that off. But we didn’t try to turn that off, because this was something that was sort of inherent in their behavior. For years in England they were accustomed to just acting out little performances. So we got them both acting for the camera and those moments where they were just being themselves.” Their humor always showed through, proving themselves to be the funniest foursome since the Marx Brothers. During the train journey from New York to Washington D.C. for their show at the Colosseum, Maysles recalls seeing George Harrison curled up in a luggage rack pretending to sleep. “And there was that wonderful moment on the train when the little girl says ’I never thought I would meet a famous singer,’ and Ringo was shaking his head in appreciation. They got along with people of all ages.”
The only time Albert’s lens wasn’t trained on the Beatles was at 8 PM on February 9th, when the CBS camera crew broadcast their five-song set live on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night institution. The brothers were not permitted to film the U.S. network television debut in the flesh, so they decided to get creative. In the end, they got something far more rare and extraordinary.
“We just walked out on to the streets and into the first apartment building we found. As we were walking along the corridor, we could hear the Beatles’ music coming from one of the apartments. So we knocked and the mother came to the door. A whole bunch of kids were watching, so we filmed them watching the program.” While CBS took care of preserving the performance for the ages, Maysles captured some of the only footage of the historic broadcast unfolding live on a family television set, the way it was happening in millions of living rooms across the country. “We were always striving for something more intimate behind the scenes. So we didn’t need The Ed Sullivan Show. We got something rather unique and special.”
The Maysles’ rejoined the band for the post-broadcast after party, held at New York’s trendy Peppermint Lounge. The hot spot was world-famous for launching the Twist dance craze, and many paid tribute to the nightclub’s claim to fame. George went back to the hotel early to nurse a cold, but the other three -particularly Ringo- danced the night away to the beat of house band, the Fabulous Epics. Armed with a state-of-the-art mobile camera rig of their own design, Albert and David were able to get out on the discotheque floor right along side them. “I sure am so pleased with the stuff that I was able to film of Ringo dancing at the Peppermint Lounge,” Mr. Mayles tells us. It’s an intimate moment of youthful exuberance, too often eclipsed by the cultural watershed that preceded it.
While he hit it off with all of the Beatles, Maysles was particularly fascinated with John Lennon.”He always appeared to be the most thoughtful of the group, which is good and bad. He didn’t say much, but he was participating. So he was a good addition to the film.” The bond would grow deeper in later years, when Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono moved into the Dakota, the same stately upper westside apartment building where Maysles was living. The sixties were over by then -literally and figuratively- and the Beatles had already split, but he often met up with the Lennons as a family friend and neighbor.
Maysles was out of town on the chilly Monday of December 8th 1980. But his family was home, resting just a few floors up from where Lennon was gunned down by a mentally disturbed assassin. They heard the shots that ended one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century. “It was just the craziest act ever,” he says now, pain still evident in his voice even after all these decades. The loss is devastating even to those who were never alive to share a planet with Lennon. It’s difficult to comprehend the depths of grief for those who actually considered him a friend.
The same hand of fate that guided Maysles to witness the spiritual start of the sixties also ensured that he would be present for the bitter end, camera in hand. In 1969, the brothers began filming The Rolling Stones during the final weeks of their American tour. One of their stops was a free concert at Northern California’s Altamont Speedway, along with acts like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Intended as a west coast answer to the glorious Woodstock festival a few months earlier, Altamont has become a cultural shorthand for darkness, violence and chaos.
While the Stones performed “Under My Thumb,” 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death in the audience by a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang assigned to guard the stage. The tragic event was a crucial scene in the Maysles’ 1970 film, Gimme Shelter, arguably the most arresting work in their entire oeuvre. The jubilant black and white images of the Beatles arrival had given way to gritty color, and the sweet dream of youthful idealism had given way to a nightmare. Both documentaries are regarded as masterpieces, although each for very different reasons. Together they are a sort of yin and yang of America’s most tumultuous decade, and will live on forever as invaluable records for those who were not able to experience it first-hand.
Fifty years on, the youthful spirit of the sixties keeps the 87-year-old Maysles vibrant and creating. He has continued making movies, even after the untimely passing of his brother David in 1987. Most recently, he joined forces with an old friend to get back to where he once belonged. In 2011 Maysles released The Love We Make, a documentary which follows Paul McCartney through New York City in the aftermath of September 11th 2001. Ironically, McCartney witnessed the attacks while his plane taxied across the tarmac at JFK International Airport, the scene of his triumphant American arrival all those years before. Desperate to help the city that had welcomed him so warmly, he set about organizing a star-studded performance at Madison Square Garden to lift the spirits of emergency service responders.The concert was a beautiful act of unity when New York -and the country- needed it most. Maysles’ camera recorded hardened professionals, many of whom had just experienced unimaginable horrors, transforming into ecstatic kids as cherished songs wrapped around them like a blanket. Even if only for a few hours, they became as giddy as those teenagers at JFK airport back in 1964. Once again, the music of the Beatles provided solace in a time of uncertainty, laughter in a moment of pain, and hope when all around seemed broken and dark. And once again, Albert Maysles was there to capture it all and share the love. The film is a perfect coda to his friendship with the four longhairs who shook the world.
What is it about the Beatles that makes them so potent half a century later? Obviously there are many factors, but one rings especially true for Maysles. “It’s their innocence. They were all in their twenties. The allure of the innocence of young men was so strong. They were such a talent and they really gave of themselves.” Whether it’s the assassination of President Kennedy, September 11th, or even the loss of a parent or loved one, the world is harsh and it’s difficult to maintain a sense of wonderment, enthusiasm and joy. The Beatles reconnect us with that time when we were young and anything was possible. “It was a special experience for everybody. And also for me, putting it down on film so that people could see it.”
And in the end, there’s only one question left to ask: What’s Albert Maysles’ favorite Beatles song? “’I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ That’s a good one.” No argument here.