Living in the Material World – Scorsese’s Harrison documentary triumphs

I was very pleased when I heard a few years ago that my favourite Beatle, George Harrison, was to be the subject of an extensive new documentary for HBO. However, when I heard that it was to be helmed by Mr Martin Scorsese, then fresh from his hugely and justly acclaimed documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, I was overjoyed and have spent the last couple of years very much looking forward to this production reaching the screens. With preview screenings hitting selected cinemas, followed by the American TV broadcast last week and a UK DVD release this week, we now know that the faith of Beatles fans, music fans and fans of documentary making around the world in Scorsese has been justified – it’s a winner.

It is, of course, a tired old cliché that George was the “quiet one” of the Beatles. Overshadowed by the songwriting and lead singing of Lennon and McCartney in the group, and grabbing fewer headlines beyond the break-up of the band by leading a more relaxed and less public life, it would be easy to see this as being the case. However, Harrison’s own personal journey within the Beatles, from shy and awkward teenager deported from Germany as being too young to play with the rest of the band, to becoming, by the time of their last studio recordings, for the Abbey Road album, arguably the best songwriter in the group, is fascinating in itself. Throw in the fact that beyond the Beatles Harrison managed to top the album chart just months later with an expensive triple album box set while simultaneously topping the singles charts (and with songs that Lennon and McCartney had clearly not felt good enough for Beatles albums) before going on to produce Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Withnail and I and almost single-handedly keep interesting British cinema alive through his own Handmade Films and you’ve got a post-Beatles career that I would argue is easily the most interesting of any of the four members.

While an overview of Harrison’s life post-Beatles break-up is an interesting enough proposition in its own right the problem for any potential director would be on how to tell the story of Harrison’s 1960s career in a way which seemed fresh. After all, the Beatles must be one of the most analysed bands of all time and it would be easy to finish up presenting us with something we felt we’d seen many times before. Thank goodness then that Scorsese was at the helm. As well as having recently tackled Bob Dylan with some skill and handled a Rolling Stones concert film with Shine a Light, he made quite a name for himself as a music documentary maker back in 1978 when, sandwiched in between classic movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, he took time out to document The Band’s farewell concert The Last Waltz. Even as far back as 1970 Scorsese’s name was rolling up on cinema screens as an editor on the seminal fesitval movie of its time, Woodstock. Quite simply, there’s absolutely no one in the business better qualified to do this subject justice than the man we got.

Any documentary project from such an old master is guaranteed to be well edited and this is very much the case from the word go as, following the quietness of a shot of Harrison filming himself behind some flowers in his garden, we journey back to the Second World War and the time of Harrison’s birth with archive of warplanes and blitzed streets cut together to the title track of Harrison’s stunning debut solo album, All Things Must Pass. Among the first interviewees to appear on-screen soon after are Harrison’s brothers – people I hadn’t even previously been aware of – as they talk about George as a child in Liverpool and, while the presence of McCartney and Starr is welcome and pretty much unavoidable it’s one of the few mis-fires of the documentary that more of the brothers’ thoughts weren’t utilised beyond the opening segments as their “ordinary” non-celebrity musings would certainly have been of value in analysing the most grounded and “ordinary” of the Beatles.

As you would expect, this first part of the documentary has a frenetic pace – something which is entirely impossible to avoid given the pace of the Beatles’ rise to the top and the musical changes they went through in such a short period of time – producing twelve UK albums in an eight year period when any major band today would struggle to produce that many over twenty five years. The period in Hamburg emerges well from this maelstrom as some of the major players in the Beatles’ circle of friends from this period come forth to speak including Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchher, the latter providing some stark and moving photographs of Harrison and Lennon’s visit to the art studio of her lover, and ex-member of the Beatles, Stuart Sutcliffe, after his tragically premature death.

Harrison visiting India in 1966

In fact, images are one of the strong points of this documentary, particularly the wealth of rare and unseen stills which have been unearthed. Just when you think you’ve seen everything there is to see about the Beatles, and seen it a thousand times to boot, it’s a pleasant surprise to see home movie footage and superb photographs emerge to make the well-trodden story of the Beatles seem fresh. My particular favourites were those taken by Harrison himself on a visit to India in 1966 shot in glorious colour with a fish eye lens and featuring George with a short haircut and moustache – something very unusual as this brief period between his early mop top and later long-haired look is rarely documented.

Another success for Scorsese is his use of Harrison’s letters to his mother to give us a real feeling of reaching back into this period in its proper context, unsullied by later reinterpretations by those involved. To be able to listen in on one of the world’s most famous celebrities and musicians at the pinnacle of his fame in 1967 writing a letter to his mum while in a religious retreat with the Maharishi and telling her not to worry about him stealing his money, while also assuring her that the spiritual side to him which has opened up allows him to love her even more is quite touching. It’s also indicative of the fact that for all the Beatles’ fame and subsequent elevation to icons almost without equal they were just four humble lads from Liverpool who had grown up surrounded by the bombsites of the war.

Harrison’s droll humour pops up throughout the two parts of the film with many examples of his dry wit. For instance, as we start to examine the growth of Harrison as a songwriter as he takes his first faltering steps into contributing his own songs for Beatles albums there’s a quote from him saying, “Well, I thought if John and Paul could write songs then anybody could”. When persistently questioned by a journalist about whether he would be writing a revenge song against Eric Clapton for stealing his wife away from him the journalist is amazed when Harrison says that he is fine with Clapton and elaborates by saying, “I’m far happier that she’s with him than with some dope”. And he has a nice line in put downs for McCartney when the latter turns up for the recording of the Beatles Anthology project during the 1990s wearing an expensive leather jacket which provokes Harrison into asking, “Is that a vegetarian leather jacket, Paul?” There is even a brilliant excerpt from Harrison’s diary which lists the filming dates for the argument-strewn and stress-filled Let it Be movie. Following a couple of these entries detailing the filming one of them just casually mentions, “Filming at Twickenham, left The Beatles, came home…” before detailing the rest of his evening as if leaving the biggest band there had ever been at that point was a mere trifle in the day’s menu.

It’s at this point that we are treated to the depressing footage of McCartney treating Harrison with pure condescension during the Twickenham sessions with Harrison famously replying that he’ll play any way Paul wants and that he won’t play at all if that’s what it takes to keep him happy. McCartney in his interview does his best to rewrite this period of the group’s history as the fault lines are exposed and they begin to fall apart by saying that they could argue but still loved each other. However, I’ve watched Let it Be and it is an unpleasant viewing experience exposing why Harrison would want to escape from Paul’s increasing control-freakery and do his own thing, having built up a huge backlog of quality songs which the other Beatles didn’t seem to be interested in at all, passing even on a stone cold classic like All Things Must Pass. The photos in this documentary of Harrison relaxing with Bob Dylan at his Woodstock retreat are in sharp contrast to the bickering he was forced to endure during the latter period of the Beatles and it was time he proved to them just how much potential he had on his own.

Bob Dylan and George Harrison in an iconic image from the Concert for Bangladesh album booklet

Of course, one of the real stars of this film is the music and if you hadn’t noticed it already during the Beatles sections – where Harrison’s songs prove that his hit ratio of memorable tracks was equal to that of Lennon and McCartney – then you certainly get the point driven home during the feature on the making of Harrison’s first, ambitious solo album. I was fortunate enough to see the documentary on a big screen at a preview in a local cinema before its broadcast on HBO and the music sounded stunning over the theatre’s sound system. One of the men responsible for this sound though was also the catalyst for a round of spontaneous laughter throughout the cinema as Phil Spector, a genius in his time, but now a tragically foolish-looking man (and a convicted killer to boot) made his screen entrance. Nevertheless these are interesting sections in the proceedings as we deal not only with the landmark songs of this period but also with Harrison’s attempts to raise money for the beleaguered people of Bangladesh in 1971, an effort which was very much the precursor to Band Aid, Live Aid and subsequent charity appeals and which was immortalised in a famous boxed set album and movie.

One of the performers at this concert, Eric Clapton, is candid throughout the film, never ducking away from the elephant in the room which must be addressed – that he stole the wife of his best friend and somehow managed to remain friends with him. Remarkably Patti Boyd herself is also interviewed, which is something I certainly wasn’t expecting, despite her recent breaking of her vow of silence on the subject in her autobiography. However, when it comes to discussion of leaving George for Eric she is represented with a rather stilted audio reading which I assume to be a recording of her book rather than her answering on camera.

Despite Harrison’s assertions to Clapton at the time, and the interview from the period I mentioned above, it’s clear though that all was not entirely well for George in the years following the break-up. One of the most cringe-inducing moments of the documentary is when we see an extremely thin and unwell-looking Harrison taking to the stage in the US for a truly dire version of Wah-Wah, his voice croaking all over the place and bedecked in a hideous pair of dungarees. The footage of him backstage afterwards is clear evidence of a man with a cocaine problem and it seems a sad contradiction of the man who turned his back on LSD in the 60s deciding that he didn’t need drugs and would instead alter his state of mind through spiritual pursuits.

However, whatever happened in his life around this time seems to have settled when he met up with his future wife, Olivia, and by the time we see him becoming involved with the Monty Python team he is once more back to his old self. Harrison was a huge fan of the work of Python and he has been quoted as saying that the spirit of the Beatles inhabited Python back in 1969 with one group ending as another began. He was an unashamed fan who idolised them  and wanted to hang out with them, something which seems incredible for one of the most idolised men in popular cultural history. This friendship though would bequeath the world a lasting legacy in the form of Life of Brian when Harrison stepped forward to help finance the movie when other film companies began to get cold feet over what they regarded as the potentially blasphemous content of the script. As Eric Idle tells the camera, Harrison re-mortgaged his house to the tune of several million quid to help make the film because he “wanted to see it” which Idle quips is still the most anyone has ever paid for a cinema ticket. An entire documentary could have been made about Harrison’s Handmade Films and the British film industry of the time so it’s a shame that his involvement with Time Bandits, Withnail and I, The Long, Good Friday and various Michael Palin projects is glossed over. However, without turning this documentary into a series it’s understandable that, even with a running time of nearly four hours, Scorsese is pressed for time.

These later sections also suffer greatly in terms of the soundtrack as Harrison’s output declined both in terms of quality and quantity at this time. There is a brief comeback for the musical side of things being discussed when Harrison’s collaboration with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys is featured for a few minutes but the end of the film is dominated by the Harrison’s fight against cancer and the awful events surrounding the final days of the last millennium when he almost became the second Beatle to be murdered as he was attacked and stabbed in his own home by an idiot looking for the same sort of notorious immortality bestowed upon Mark Chapman. Fortunately, Harrison survived so the name of this waste of space has already slipped from most people’s minds but Olivia gives a harrowing and detailed account of the attack to the camera. George’s son Dahni confirms what most of us must have thought at the time that the senseless and violent attack upon a peace-loving man who was fighting cancer took years off his life and Harrison was gone less than two years later. Ringo recounts his final tearful meeting with Harrison in the hospital room where he died and starts to break up at the memory, but he gets the biggest laugh of the entire film when he suddenly straightens himself, turns to the camera and announces, “It’s all getting a bit Barbara fucking Walters”, as he references his similarly emotional display with the American interviewer in the wake of John Lennon’s death.

In all, Scorsese succeeds admirably in condensing into four hours one of the most famous lives of the twentieth century. There’s little doubt that the pace of the two parts is very different but that’s because no one can keep up the pace of life of being a Beatle across their entire life. The Beatles footage has an energy and life all of its own but Scorsese skillfully weaves it in a new way or, as a friend of mine put it, shifts the centre of gravity of the Beatles back in the direction of George and away from the two front men where we’ve always been used to seeing it. Through home movies, letters, interviews with Harrison himself and those closest to him a fitting tribute to Harrison is pieced together which doesn’t attempt to shy away from awkward subjects such as Harrison’s eye for the ladies – something I hadn’t even been aware was a problem before this film was completed. The second part necessarily has a different job to do but it does it well, outlining his life beyond the Fab Four, making music, making movies, making friends or just pottering about in his gardens.

Fittingly, the film ends with George in his beloved gardens with the same shot as we began with. George hiding behind a clump of flowers, filmed by himself. It conjures an image of Harrison being just slightly out of sight, slightly beyond our reach, but still there. For millions of fans of the music he made and the films he financed his presence will continue to be felt and his legacy is intact, a legacy which is undoubtedly strengthened by this timely and skillful tribute.

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5 Responses to Living in the Material World – Scorsese’s Harrison documentary triumphs

  1. Wonderful review, Evan. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Bob C. says:

    Starr’s reference to a B. Walter’s moment was about his tearing up over recalling the extremely sick Harrison offering to accompany Starr to the U.S. to see his daughter who was dealing with a brain tumor, not Lennon’s death.

    • Hi Bob, and thanks for the reply. Yes, I knew it was the visit to Harrison – at the same time as his daughter was ill – that made Starr well up, but when he makes the Barbara Walters quip he’s then referencing the fact that he got similarly emotional on camera way back in 1981 shortly after Lennon’s death when Walters interviewed him. I’ve changed the wording a bit now just to flag up that these were two separate events.

  3. John S says:

    Nice review, Evan, though I think you let Scorsese off the hook for virtually ignoring George’s post-1974 output. The man achieved one of rock’s greatest comebacks in the late 80s, a fact that is overlooked both in the film’s narrative and in its soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with so much of what you’ve written, but as a George fan I felt somewhat shortchanged by the second part of the film.

    • It’s a difficult one, trying to get the balance, isn’t it? When the documentary was first announced I was hoping he might focus more on the later years as the early years have been covered so often before. However, not only is it impossible to ignore them but he managed to find a lot of new material and ways of telling the story. I do agree though that the rest of his career is whizzed through with less than half the running time covering three quarters of his career. In fact, I’ve only just remembered that they didn’t even mention the final album he recorded and which he didn’t even live to see released. And Handmade Films could be an entire documentary by itself. I’d have liked to see three parts myself to restore a bit of balance but if you’re going to have just two parts then I guess this was the only way of doing it.

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