Doc of the Day: The Beales of Grey Gardens Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Beales of Grey Gardens

Posted in Days of Docs by - April 18, 2012

 The Maysles brothers revisit their most infamous subjects in this “sequel” to their 1976 classic.

Dir. Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 2006, 91 min

Sequels are rare enough in the documentary world. Sequels coming thirty years after the original? Practically unheard of. And of all the doc filmmakers in the world, the Maysles brothers are probably the ones I’d least expect to do it. And to make it a sequel to Grey Gardens of all movies? The protagonists of that film are dead! Grey Gardens is a nice place now! What are they thinking?

Well, The Beales of Grey Gardens isn’t actually a sequel. The Maysles went back to the footage they’d shot for the original Grey Gardens, pulled out an hour and a half’s worth of new material, and put it out as a new film. It’s sort of a “sidequel” or “midquel,” taking place concurrently with the events of the original film. Again, a very odd premise.

So why did they do it? Because Grey Gardens is a beloved cult sensation, and the Maysles wanted to give them more. The original film is renowned for the weirdness and hilarity of its main characters, Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin who live in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion. “Big” Edie and “Little” Edie Beale are a reclusive, cat-loving pair, who have an unnatural talent for dropping bizarre, eminently quotable anecdotes. They’ve lived very… “interesting” lives, and will enthusiastically share all the details with the Maysles, with whom they formed a warm, close bond. They are, no exaggeration, some of the best subjects anyone ever found for a documentary, and spending more time with them is a delightful proposition.

Like the first film, Beales is a narratively-light piece, a breezy flow of different days at Grey Gardens. One minute Little Edie is singing for us, the next she’s frantically trying to put out a fire, the next she’s bad-mouthing the local newspaper reporter who called her schizophrenic. It doesn’t sound interesting, but it is. It really is. Big and Little Edie possess a strange, magnetic charisma that I can’t fully articulate; you really have to see it for yourself. Maybe it’s their complete lack of self-awareness or shame, or their total openness and vulnerability, or their incredibly thick accents. Whatever the reason, I’d honestly love to spend an entire series worth of films getting to know them.

The Beales of Grey Gardens is a warm, weird, and wonderful little film. Even though it’s made of all the stuff that was judged unfit for the original doc, it’s doesn’t for a second feel like a bunch of outtakes. It’s a perfect companion piece to Grey Gardens. Maybe it isn’t quite as good as the first, it’s still better and more interesting than most other docs.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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