Shiny Shelf

George Harrison: Living In The Material World

By Eddie Robson on 06 October 2011

A couple of years ago, all the Beatles albums were reissued with new packaging including photos I’d never seen before – and I’m a pretty big Beatles fan, as my blog testifies. At first I was surprised that they’d dug up these new (to me) images – then I realised that The Beatles were such a heavily-documented group in their own time, there will always be more photos and footage of them. There’s more of this stuff than you can reasonably see in a lifetime: we just have to trust others to find it.

Martin Scorsese’s new film about the life of George Harrison makes its own contribution to this with some really remarkable material. A battered portrait of The Beatles in Hamburg; news footage of Harrison and McCartney signing documents that split the group for good; a photograph of Harrison and Ravi Shankar bumping into Peter Sellers at an airport. The whole thing is skilfully edited and arranged, so it flows beautifully: like Scorsese’s earlier documentary on Bob Dylan, it feels free to skip backwards and forwards where necessary, rather than telling the story by rote. It also features acres of excellent interview material, the pick of which is Eric Clapton being asked whether he knew Lennon had half-seriously suggested drafting him in when Harrison quit the group in early 1969. The film’s three and a half hours slip by very comfortably.

Remarkably, in spite of its running time, it could have been longer. It uses narrative short cuts, working on the assumption that you know the broad strokes of The Beatles’ story – so how the group ended up in Hamburg isn’t explained, we just skip to the account of what happened to them there. This enables the film to concentrate on less well-known aspects of the group, which it does very well – yet it still leaves out some surprising stuff. After a short section on the first of Harrison’s songs to make it onto a Beatles record (‘Don’t Bother Me’), the next discussion of one of his songs is ‘Within You Without You’ from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, six albums later. This means there’s nothing on songs like ‘Taxman’ and ‘Love You To’, and so his development as a songwriter is covered only sporadically. It also goes unmentioned that Harrison collaborated with Lennon and McCartney on the group’s early, unreleased tracks – interesting in the light of his earlier marginalisation, which the film discusses at length.

Musically, Harrison’s importance to the group is tantalisingly touched upon when McCartney talks about the recording of ‘And I Love Her’ from A Hard Day’s Night. Revealing that Harrison spontaneously came up with the guitar refrain, McCartney generously admits this simple phrase is what makes the song good. I find this sort of thing fascinating, and could happily listen to the surviving Beatles and their studio team discuss Harrison’s specific contributions to specific tracks for hours. However, there’s no coverage of Harrison’s peak as an integral member of the group, on Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver – when the group was still playing regularly in the studio as a unit. The film does cover his peak as a songwriter, beginning with ‘Within You Without You’ and going into his early solo career – but most of his solo albums aren’t even mentioned.

So, if this three-and-a-half-hour film isn’t about any of that stuff, what is it about? It’s a portrait of Harrison as a person, rather than an account of his work. Discussion of his work is generally used as a reflection on where he was at in his life. This approach makes it a more focused film – if I’d been given the footage, I’d probably have made it about eleven hours long. Actually no, I’d still be editing it now. Scorsese’s film is about Harrison’s spiritual journey, which makes it sound awful, but it’s not because it doesn’t try to create an easy narrative or make out that Harrison had all the answers by the end of his life. It’s critical, exploring Harrison’s angry, selfish side – but in doing so it succeeds in making a case for Harrison being as complex and interesting a character as his more celebrated bandmates. Now all we need is the Ringo movie.

Buy the film at Amazon.

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By Eddie Robson

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