The Man Who Filmed the Beatles
Many years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing filmmaker Albert Maysles, who was instrumental in recording a historic week in the annals of rock music: the Beatles’ first visit to the U.S.
My article was published in the Jan./Feb. 2004 issue of Beatlefan, which has been for decades the foremost American magazine dedicated to the Fab Four. So why am I resurrecting and posting the piece here, in 2022? To be honest, I had nearly forgotten the article in the ensuing years (although I had placed it in my writing portfolio/scrapbook with great care and pride shortly after it made its way into print), but Maysles’ recollections of his and his brother David’s time with the Beatles are every bit as fascinating today, and deserve to be known by those who are still unfamiliar with their story (David, who handled the sound for their films, died in 1987; Albert, the cameraman, died in 2015).
Here, then, is a somewhat expanded version of how the Maysles brothers’ time with the Beatles came about…
In 1962, the brothers left the film production company Drew Associates to form their own company, Maysles Films, Inc. Two years later, they found themselves taking on a project like no other.
They were among the hordes of photographers covering the Beatles’ arrival in New York on February 7, 1964, at the newly-renamed Kennedy Airport. Albert and David would be the only film crew to record the group’s activities both in public and in private for the duration of the Beatles’ visit to New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Little did the brothers know they were about to record one of the most significant events in American pop culture history from such an intimate perspective — and with virtually no preparation.
“I got a call one day from Granada Television in England,” Albert recalled, “and they said the Beatles would be arriving in two hours at the airport, and would I be interested in making a film [of the arrival]. So I put my hand over the phone and I turned to my brother, and said, ‘Who are the Beatles? Are they any good?’ And fortunately he knew about them and we got excited. We made a deal on the phone and rushed out to the airport with camera and tape recorder in hand.”
The two didn’t know what to expect. There could be only a handful of people at the airport to greet the group, or ten thousand. These were not the days of sophisticated and well-oiled publicity machines saturating the media wtih advance mailings and press packets. “I suppose part of it might be that Brian Epstein was not that skilled a PR guy,” Maysles speculated. ‘This was something new for him, so there was not much advance publicity.”
Of course, the Beatles did indeed arrive to the welcome of thousands of screaming fans, and held a press conference at the Pan Am lounge in the airport. The Maysles brothers shared the limo ride into Manhattan with John and Paul, recording the obvious and sincere delight as fans clamored around the windows of the car to catch sight of them, screaming in their faces with only the fagile window between them.
Their arrival had been trumpeted in the nespapers, but perhaps more importantly on the city’s AM music radio stations, such as WABC and WINS. DJ Murray Kaufman (“Murray the K”) in particular did his utmost not only to lead the call for Beatles fans to greet the group but to insinuate himself into their company. Maysles filmed Kaufman in the WINS radio booth, talking to the group on the air, and hanging out with them at the Peppermint Lounge.
But the filmmaking team also spent a good deal of time with the group behind closed doors — in their suite at the Plaza, accompanying them on a stroll through Central Park for the benefit of the army of press photographers, and even sharing the train to Washington, D.C. for their first American concert, and then moving on to Miami, from where the Beatles would perform again on The Ed Sullivan Show (David by this point had gone to England to continue talks with Granada Television,while Albert continued filming with another sound man).
“They assumed a rather different role from any other people we had ever filmed,” Albert explained, “because in England the photographers loved to set up sort of a staging, where they would ask the Beatles to do this or do that. So, without our setting anything up, without our desire even to have them perform for us, they took on the same kind of behavior photographers had expected of them in England, so there was a lot of acting for the camera. But that’s just the way they were.”
The group welcomed the film team with no trepidation. Maysles says his film subjects throughout his career have developed an almost instant trust of him and his filmmaking techniques and goals. His cinema verite style of filming and editing — also known as “fly on the wall” — relied on capturing people and events as they happened, without interference or contrived set-ups.
“We don’t work the way Michael Moore and some others work, where they’re sort of out to get somebody. We had a genuine desire to like these guys, and treat them fairly. And I guess they sensed that right away, and they trusted us.”
The brothers would have followed the group straight into CBS Studio 50 where they were to make their historic American TV debut before 73 million viewers, but union rules forbade their own filming of the event. “When we were filming, and when the Beatles walked into CBS to do The Ed Sullivan Show, we knew that if we walked in, we couldn’t do any filming because of the unions. So instead, we walked down the street, and walked into an apartment building. When we heard the TV show through one of the doors, we knocked on the door, and asked the family if we could film them. So we filmed them watching the TV show.”
The group would have then flown to D.C. for their first concert (at the Washington Colosseum), but a bad snowstorm necessitated taking the train instead. When they weren’t goofing around for the press, Ringo took the time to chat at length with 9-year-old Linda Binns, who was returning home to Norfolk, Virgina with her parents after a visit to New York. Maysles captured their chat, after which Ringo took her to meet the other Beatles.
[A side note: I managed to find Linda Binns Liles, who graciously accepted my request to interview her for my book We’re Going to See the Beatles!, and who later accepted my invitation to take part in a discussion panel at the 2008 Beatlefest in New Jersey, along with many other first-generation fans who had also contributed their personal recollections to the book.
Albert explained how, once the film of the Beatles’ visit was in the can, the story was not yet over. “My brother and I made the original film and then, because in England you don’t need a release, we didn’t ask for a release [to air it on TV in the U.S.], because originally the film was only going to be shown in England for Granada.” The original 36-minute version, covering just the early part of the Beatles’ visit, was titled Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Beatles in New York, airing on February 12, 1964 on Granada TV. A 45-minute version, titled What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., aired on CBS later in the year, on November 13.
Without a release, the brothers weren’t able to otherwise show their own film in America. United Artists was also about to release A Hard Day’s Night, in which several scenes closely duplicate the real-life footage.
“They didn’t want the competition of our film,” Maysles said. “So, years went by, finally Apple contacted us, and said, ‘Look, we’re getting a release from Granada, and we’d like to make a deal with you so that we can own the film.’ So we had no choice but to hand it over to them and get paid for it. Then they came back to us and said, ‘We’d like to make some changes to make it more commercial.’ So they put in the Sullivan appearance, and put more music back into it.”
A version of the film was released on VHS by Apple in 1991, and re-issued in an expanded DVD edition in 2004, but Maysles confided, “that’s not the best version.” Missing was the footage of the New York family sitting around the TV, as were millions of other families across the country that evening, watching the Beatles make history. Maysles would have liked to see that segment included in the video release. “That was, of course, more interesting,” he concluded.
The brothers would go on to make several other landmark documentaries, including Gimme Shelter, documenting the last weeks of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American tour (which culminated in the disastrous Altamont concert), and Grey Gardens, capturing on film the lives of reclusive upper-class mother and daughter, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, who were the aunt and cousin of Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis, and residing in a run-down mansion in East Hampton, New York. In order to finance some of their films, the brothers also made commercials for clients such as IBM, Shell Oil, and Merrill Lynch.
In 2001, Albert and Paul McCartney reunited to collaborate on the film The Love We Make, about Paul’s experiences in New York during and after 9/11.
While the Maysles brothers’ film of the Beatles’ first U.S. visit is only one among so many of their creative filmmaking accomplishments, the world will always owe its gratitude to them for preserving that legendary event, allowing us glimpses into their world that would have otherwise remained unseen.
Until next time…
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