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It’s a wonder how he does it, but somehow between making The Departed and Shutter Island and Boardwalk Empire and Hugo and all his assorted other projects, Martin Scorsese has found time to create another epic music documentary. Comparable to his 2005 No Direction Home: Bob Dylan in length, scope and comprehensiveness, George Harrison: Living in the Material World proves nearly equally rewarding, even if its subject doesn’t necessarily compel the same sort of automatic anticipatory excitement. Extraordinary footage from both the Beatles era and post-’60s period, along with revelatory, often beguiling commentary from a host of intimates and a treasure trove of musical delights, combine to create a personality portrait of welcome depth about a musical giant who often seemed to stand a bit in the shadows of his more exuberant peers. After festival exposure in Telluride and New York, this richly satisfying, two-part, experience will be available to viewers on HBO beginning Oct. 5.
Scorsese doesn’t try to make a case either for Harrison being as an important an artist as Dylan or his band mates John Lennon and Paul McCartney, or for his having been somewhat neglected. But that the film entirely commands full attention for 209 minutes is itself testimony not only to its quality but to the idea that the public may have underestimated this old schoolmate of Paul’s whose voice wasn’t that great, who wasn’t as cute as the other two original Beatles, didn’t contribute many songs at first and got into that weird Indian sitar stuff but had perhaps the most diverse and unusual life journey of any of them.
Opening with fantastic World War II English victory celebration footage that’s new at least to American eyes, the film zooms through the subject’s Liverpool youth (“He was cocky,” one of his brothers avers) to the point where George, at 17, went to play in divey Hamburg clubs with the original configuration of what was to become The Beatles. Wonderfully intimate interviews with Klaus Voorman and, especially, his then-girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr, who took striking early photographs of the lads, bring those grungy, heady days poignantly alive.
Then Beatlemania hits, with first-hand descriptions by Ringo Starr providing an inside feel to a cascade of what, again, is not overly familiar footage. Joan Taylor, wife of the group’s press officer, amusingly describes the boys’ first acid trip—done, per Paul, in an environment of “controlled weirdness”–although George claims on an excerpted Dick Cavett Show appearance that they didn’t know they were taking LSD the first time they had it.
Whereas India, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the sitar were essentially passing fancies for the other Beatles, for George they became staples of his life, with Taylor suggesting that, for him, spirituality and meditation provided a route to meaning and the inner self beyond chemicals. Musically, the Eastern diversion, which occupies a fair amount of screen time, still seems just that, a sort of experimental dead end when grafted onto Western pop, but George’s sincere dedication to it is undoubted.
Part One, which runs 94 minutes, ends with Yoko Ono making her entrance upon the scene and tension mounting to a point that, per Harrison, “was stifling us. It had to self-destruct.” Nothing less than “My Guitar Gently Weeps” would do to bring this chapter to a close.
For some time, George had quietly been stockpiling songs (some of which had been rejected by John and Paul), which explains how, after The Beatles broke up, he was able to so quickly come out with a triple album, “All Things Must Pass,” loaded with great material. What follows in the 115-minute Part Two is variously exhilarating (the Concert for Bangladesh, The Traveling Wilburys), bizarre (Eric Clapton‘s obsession with George’s wife Pattie, whom he eventually married, an interlude described by Clapton in rather defensively jokey fashion), idiosyncratic (George’s purchase of an enormous Victorian estate) and illustrative of his increasingly diverse interests (his outlay of $4 million to rescue Monty Python’s Life of Brian from cancellation and the creation of the enterprising HandMade Films, his close friendship with Formula 1 driver Jackie Stewart).
One major coup is a rare, amply sampled interview with Phil Spector, obviously made before his 2009 murder conviction. A producer on “Let It Be,” “All Things” and “A Concert for Bangladesh,” Spector is sometimes hilarious and even more often insightful, a real plus for the documentary. George’s second wife Olivia gradually enters the frame (she is one the film’s three producers), then comes the troubled end, with recurring illnesses aggravated by the shocking home invasion and physical assault that may have considerably shortened his life.
Editor David Tedeschi, who also cut the Dylan film, surely shouldered an enormous share of the responsibility for organizing the voluminous and diverse material that comprises this vast tapestry, to an end result that is consistently engaging and vital. Some construction seems puzzling–no sooner are the youngsters in Liverpool introduced at the outset than the film jumps momentarily to The Beatles breaking up, there’s scarce mention of the lads’ film work (might this not have helped spur George’s later entry into the film business?) and family and other personal details are sketchily presented at best.
But, then, if you want every i dotted and t crossed, you should read a biography; here is the man himself, reticent, cagey but open to life, his mind occupied with many things, and his music and friends as well, all up on the screen. It’s not a film one particularly expected to be made but it’s a vastly welcome one.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: October 5-6 (HBO)
Production: Spitfire Prods., Sikelia Prods., Grove Street Prods.
Sales: Exclusive Films Intl.
Cast: Eric Clapton, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, George Martin, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty, Phil Spector, Ringo Starr, Jackie Stewart, Harry Harrison, Pete Harrison, Klaus Voorman, Astrid Kirchherr, Joan Taylor, Pattie Boyd, Ken Scott, Jane Birkin, Neil Aspinall, Mukunda Soswami, Billy Preston, Jim Keller, Olivia Harrison, Ray Cooper, Dhani Harrison
Director: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Olivia Harrison, Nigel Sinclair, Martin Scorsese
Executive Producer: Margaret Bodde
Editor: David Tedeschi
Running time, 209 minutes
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