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Lounging Around With the Stones

October 23, 1994|Robert Levine

It seems unlikely that a documentary filmmaker who generally prefers classical music to rock would desire to make even one film about the Rolling Stones. But Albert Maysles recently finished his second.

His first, the classic "Gimme Shelter," documents the Stones' creative peak and their free concert in 1969 at the Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco, where the murder of fan Meredith Hunter brought the concert to a tragic close.

This summer, almost 25 years later, Maysles Films made "Conversations With the Rolling Stones," a 30-minute VH-1 special that premieres Thursday. "VH-1 contacted us because they knew that since we made the earlier film and (the Stones) respected our work, that sort of friendship would be a special entree," says Maysles, 67, sitting in a conference room in the Manhattan offices of the company, which makes commercials as well as documentaries.

Not only did members of the Stones open up to Maysles and to off-camera MTV news interviewer Kurt Loder about things like the absence of bassist Bill Wyman and their longevity as a band, they let him film part of a tour rehearsal that they had originally said was off limits.

"When I was filming Keith Richards, I whispered to him, 'Can we film you guys in rehearsal?' " Maysles says. "All he said was, 'I'll talk to Mick about it.' "

It's partly Maysles' ability to establish that kind of rapport with his subjects that has made his nonfiction films so effective. Either because he's trustworthy or because his style of filming is unobtrusive, his subjects don't seem to mind revealing themselves to him.

Originally a psychology instructor at Boston University, Maysles went into the film industry after he made a short film in 1955 about patients in Russian mental hospitals. Along with his late brother, David, he became one of the pioneers of "direct cinema," an American version of cinema verite that emphasized recording real events on film.

Using hand-held cameras and sound equipment, the brothers made short documentaries about such subjects as Truman Capote and the Beatles, and "Salesman," a 1968 documentary about four door-to-door Bible salesmen they made with Charlotte Zwerin, deemed a classic by the Library of Congress.

In 1969 a friend phoned Maysles and hinted that the Rolling Stones might be interested in having a documentary made. After seeing the band perform in Baltimore, the Maysles brothers quickly agreed to the project.

"When we got to Madison Square Garden (to start filming 'Gimme Shelter') . . . Mick turned toward us and said, 'Look, I'm not going to be an actor,' Maysles says. "I said, 'Of course not, we never require that of anybody.' . . . I picked up the camera and began filming. He must have sensed (what was happening) was interesting. We had no trouble after that."

Partly because Altamont came to signify the end of the hippie era, "Gimme Shelter," which the Maysles brothers also made with Zwerin, has a historical importance few rock films can match. "Because we didn't interfere with what was going on, we had a special kind of sensitivity to it," Maysles says.

"Conversations," which was made by Maysles and filmmakers Kathy Dougherty and Susan Froemke, chronicles an event that wouldn't have taken place without a camera being there. But though the Stones are in an interview setting, they relax, and offer some interesting insights into their creative process. Jagger talks about writing lyrics at the last minute, and Richards tells how he came up with the riff for "Satisfaction."

"We saw it as a perfect match," said John Sykes, president of VH-1. "The combination of Loder and Maysles made (the Stones) say some incredible things."

And of course, it's not only what they say but how they say it. The interview shots are black-and-white close-ups (the rehearsals are in color), and the Stones' facial expressions and gestures provide exactly the kind of telling detail Maysles hopes gives some insight into his subjects.

"Making documentary films . . . the camera's picking up more than you can imagine," he says. "More than you can invent."*

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