Thursday, August 09, 2012

George Harrison by Scorsese

Seen last year on pay cable, George Harrison Living in the Material World, a film directed by Martin Scorsese is now widely available on DVD. It’s a two disk set divided into the two parts seen successively on HBO for a total of 229 minutes.  There are a few extra scenes and interview snippets as special features, which are nice but not much. I especially felt the absence of some full song performances as were included in the DVD of Scorsese’s film on Bob Dylan. His music grows more impressive with time. [The image above begins and ends this film.]

Some of the footage has been used elsewhere but there’s a lot that comes from Harrison’s “home movies” and photos. There are archival soundbites with Harrison, and new interviews with George’s wife Olivia Harrison (a co-producer) and his son Dhani, and with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and other friends, including the race car driver Jackie Stewart.

Scorsese makes some strange cuts and a few significant omissions, but the major biographical elements are there: the Beatles and post-Beatles music, Harrison’s spiritual journey, his invention of the all-star benefit with the Concert for Bangla Desh, and his involvement in film (he mortgaged his house to finance Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.) It’s a rounded if impressionistic portrait. While interviewees speak of the necessarily intense bond among the Beatles, Scorsese shows images of hysterical fans and the rest of the crazed context. Eric Clapton recalls how magical they were as a group, even moving in ways special to themselves.

[Photo above: Olivia Harrison with director Martin Scorsese] On second viewing, some of the rhyming scenes emerge: for instance, early in the film, Dahni relates a recent dream in which he asks his father where’s he’s been and George replies, “I’ve been here all the time.” Much later, Tom Petty describes a phone conversation the day after Roy Orbison’s death (he, Orbison, Harrison plus Bob Dylan and Jeff Lyne were then recording as the Traveling Wilburys) in which Harrison said, “he’s still around."

Death was a focus of Harrison’s spiritual attention, but he did have 58 years of life before cancer took him in 2001 (as opposed to John Lennon, who was shot to death before his 40th birthday.)  The last part of his mature life is especially rich territory for Scorcese, highlighted by Olivia Harrison’s wise and beautiful description of the mutual lessons of their marriage. The film gently considers his wilder and darker moments as well as his spirituality and wit. Several interviewees describe Harrison as having two distinct sides: calm and kind, or angry and acerbic. When he was with the Beatles he yearned to be on his own, and later (someone observes) he missed being in a band. He craved solitude and peace, but had several circles of friends and seems to have had a special talent for friendship.

His humor was also an evident trait, one which rates at most memorable to Paul McCartney.  Olivia describes in detail the horrific attack that injured both she and George, who was stabbed.  But as he was being taken away on a stretcher, he noticed a workman who had just that day joined the crew helping him with landscaping.  George said to him, "So how do you like the job so far?"

Two other moments stand out in this companionable film. After John Lennon’s death, a reporter observed to George that Lennon “was no angel.” “No, he wasn’t,” Harrison said, “but he was, as well.” “Was he?” “Yeah.”

 Ringo recalls visiting Harrison during his final illness, when he was too weak to get out of bed. Ringo told him he had to leave to visit his daughter in Boston who had a brain tumor. The last words Harrison spoke to him were, “Do you want me to go with you?”   

Son Dahni, Olivia and producer George Martin

Olivia, Scorsese and Paul McCartney.

Dhani Harrison.