Monday 28 November 2011

On DVD: "George Harrison: Living in the Material World"

Having covered the life of Dylan in No Direction Home, and given us a cursory glimpse of the Stones' legacy in the live concert movie Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese now turns his attention to the quiet man of the Beatles with George Harrison: Living in the Material World. I question the degree of input and involvement Scorsese has in these documentaries: in Shine a Light, we at least got to see him call action and cut, but it's plainly not him doing the interviews in this new entry, and one wonders whether he limited himself to making music and editing choices and subcontracted much of the legwork, safe in the knowledge of the access his name will have opened up to pertinent interviewees. Of Scorsese's personal engagement with Harrison's music, there is none.

That said, some of his directorial decisions are faultless. Very sensibly, the project divides itself into two parts. Part One gives itself ninety minutes to tell one of the biggest stories in pop history, a story Harrison has to share with three other noted Liverpudlians, and Brian Epstein, and George Martin, and Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, and Sgt. Pepper, not to mention the Eggman. Part Two, crucially approaching the two-hour mark, tells of Harrison's post-Beatles activity, and you can get a feel for the renaissance man he became from the roster of interviewees alone: Terry Gilliam, Jane Birkin, Phil Spector (pre-prison), Jackie Stewart.

To get the Beatles out of the way first, as Scorsese must, the film locks into place an idea of the Fab Four as the first truly modern pop group - the sense of which one best infers not necessarily from the assembled live performances, electrifying as they may be, nor perhaps from the recordings, which now can't be evaluated by anyone who wasn't there at the time as anything other than the Shakespearian-sacred texts they've become. It's from the band's interviews and press conferences, where one observes four chippy kids trying to out-do one another, to appear the smartest person in the room. (Run a cursory mental comparison with Westlife or One Direction, whose nodding inarticulacy in interviews - precisely that of recording artists with nothing to say - outs them as the pop puppets they are: those boys need their strings pulling to speak.)

From the interview footage the documentary collates, we get a glimpse of how the Beatles were paving the way for the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show, and against the sarky, sometimes abrasive John, the goofy Ringo, and the crowdpleasing Paul, George appears ever more the calm at the centre of this storm, and all the funnier for not trying to be funny. Harrison was the youngest of the lot, and yet maturity was conferred upon him early: this is what happens when you start gigging on the Reeperbahn before you've emerged from your teens, seen one of your bandmates (the unfortunate Sutcliffe, whose story was told in Iain Softley's nimble bio Backbeat) die well before his time, and had the status of a latter-day god bestowed on you. Pop stars grew up quicker back then: by way of a comparison, it took 25 years for Harrison to come up with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and 31 for Peter Andre to arrive at "Insania".

Yet, as Eric Clapton suggests, there would be a downside to being part of a band that, once it had ascended beyond a certain peak of celebrity, faced the indignity of having all their hard work and best tunes screamed down by adoring fans who just wanted to look at you - and, for Harrison in particular, a frustration at having to play creative second fiddle to one of the 20th century's greatest songwriting partnerships. His solution would be to devote the rest of his career to making music that people would take trouble to listen to, while setting out in search of the inner peace that material wealth both allows an individual to pursue and can hold them back from attaining. If that sounds overly spiritual, well, the guy did name his son Dhani.

Towards the end of Part One, with the Beatles going through their transitional late-60s period, the film begins to concern itself with a mind opening up to previously unexplored possibilities: there are the meetings with Maharishis and Ravi Shankar, and George and John's suddenly humorless appearances on TV chatshows, Frost in attendance, where they're invited to justify their beliefs before an audience of balding men in suits, representatives of the kind of old-world, Empire thinking the rock 'n' roll revolution hadn't entirely blown away. In retrospect, we may mourn the way the music of the 1970s lost the carefree swing of its 60s equivalent, but then, as the documentary shows, the four lads who shook the world were now grown men in search of an exit strategy; and so out went the clean lines and melodies beloved of producer Martin, in came auras and distortion enough to drown out the teenyboppers. The Beatles canon had grown so all-encompassing - in just ten years! - that it could predict both the occasionally pompous self-involvement of prog and the dissonance of those young punks rising up against it.

Stronger on archive and anecdote than analysis, Living in the Material World at first seems tooled for entertainment over genuine enlightenment, but its second half - beginning with the break-up of, variously, the biggest band in the world, a gang of childhood friends, and Harrison's marriage to Pattie Boyd - becomes more vital. It's here we see Harrison coming to compose a whole new landscape for himself - physically, with a new home in the Henley countryside, emotionally, with his second wife Olivia, and professionally, with his seeking out of other collaborators and fellow travellers. The archive footage here shows a man in the process of rediscovering himself, and what this music lark (more specifically: his music, suddenly pushed centre-stage) could be: a way of opening hearts and minds as well as ears and wallets. Harrison's 70s output possibly stands up better than his former bandmates: Paul never had a Life of Brian to his name, and if George's music tended here and there towards the hippy and the dippy, at least there's nothing quite as teeth-grindingly fatuous as "Imagine" in his back catalogue.

It's a shame Scorsese should pass over "Got My Mind Set On You", Harrison's tentpole 80s hit (and perhaps the closest he ever came to a Lennon-McCartney moment), which is like doing a Paul film and not mentioning the Frog Chorus, or a Ringo movie without Thomas the Tank Engine. Still, he has a good stab at repositioning the Traveling Wilburys - previously understood as a rolling rock retirement home, their music the equivalent of a nice cup of tea and a biscuit - as a last bastion of comfort, the place a musician might well go to enjoy hanging out with his mates and doing the thing that he loves, without the pressure from label bosses or the screaming of schoolgirls. Harrison always was one of life's seekers: someone who - after the headache-inducing mania of life as a Beatle - went looking for serenity and tranquillity, and eventually found it. His friends - from many and diverse worlds: music, film, fashion, sport - continue to miss him, and many shed fond tears speaking about him. But - as the film realises, as its subject realised - all things must pass.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World is available on DVD through Lionsgate.

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