Living in the Material World
Martin does George a Treat
Martin Scorsese’s film about George Harrison, Living in the Material World, is a beautifully crafted confection of refreshingly unused archive footage alongside material that you know so well you’ve forgotten how to look at it. Scorsese grabs the material by the scruff of its visual neck and makes you marvel at it again; retelling afresh that wondrous tale about scouse upstarts from the provinces changing the world. It showed on HBO in the USA on October 5th & 6th, on BBC 2 Arena in the Autumn and has just been released on DVD and you should see it.
Just like No Direction Home(!) featuring Bob Dylan, Scorsese presents an old story using old material with intelligence and movie smarts, fired by his own passion for the music and personal affection for the protagonists. Allied with his long-established ability to create memorable musical documentaries, well he was a cameraman at Woodstock, he choreographs George’s own Last Waltz with skilful edits, unexpected links and new interviews. Scorsese has found unseen outtakes and previously rejected photographic stills, and links them to well-known clips of the Beatles where he often zooms in so tightly on them playing live that he creates a kind of grainy simulation of 3D, adding an unexpected immediacy to old stock. With both Harrison’s and the Beatles music digitally re-mastered he makes sure that the sound is fresh and loud, allowing him to present George Harrison to us anew, both visually and aurally, opening out fresh interpretations of the ‘quiet Beatle; quiet blunt apparently.
Revealing interviews from Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voorman, Patti Boyd and especially Eric Clapton (“of course I wanted to be a Beatle” – he laughs) enables Scorsese to extract fresh insights; often about the interviewees themselves. Ringo is inimitable “I thought it was you three”, Paul has one eye on future history and half an eye on the past, curating his own anecdotes, Patti is guardedly open, Yoko gracious and Eric is at peace with his blues. Astrid and Klaus let us see how critical the early input of art-school creativity was into the developing Beatles project in Hamburg. Mind you Paul pulls out the best metaphor, how the Beatles were a perfect square and you needed all four of them for it to work; group genius. And what of “cocky” George Harrison, “raunchy” Beatles guitarist, conflicted spiritualist, died-in-the-wool scouser (or labskauser as they say in Hamburg) ultimately left with No Direction Home, peacefully adrift in the collapsing folly of Friar Park?
He made his own world and lived in it materially, spiritually and sexually; thank Krishna.
I watched Living in the Material World with Kevin Donovan in Liverpool at the FACT Cinema off Bold Street, following its premiere in London on Sunday. The cinema, a magnificent indie art house with fantastic sound – as Kevin said, great to *hear* the film in a real cinema – was full, and there was a lot of love and laughter in the audience. The film starts with a pre-amble of 3 short interviews, including one with Terry Gilliam making a deathly funny ‘Taxman’ joke, and then shifts to the WW2 blitz on Liverpool when George was born. Kevin, from Liverpool and of the Beatles generation, found the opening sequences deeply moving and they help contextualise George’s story and set up the film as being a story about recovering from war and changing the world in order that you could live in it with vitality, purpose and creativity. Gerry from Liverpool looks thoughtfully at George’s origins with greater depth than the film.
The film is in two parts and George is, as expected perhaps, still in the Beatles at the end of the first part; as Ringo says “I’ll probably die a Beatle.” This blog is about the Beatles extraordinary collective creativity so that is fine by me, but Scorsese cleverly builds up that story and allows George, whose greatest successes with the Beatles were at their end and as a solo artist at the beginning, roughly 1966-73, to emerge from the Beatles becoming his own man during this time. And just to show how much he enjoyed it there is this marvellous sequence of George singing along in 1976 to an out-take of This Boy with a twinkling and far from gnomic countenance; here is This Boy;
In Beatle George I make the case that George was both a key musical contributor throughout and, in many ways, The Beatles musical director from the White Album to their dissolution. Scorsese though positions George between Paul and John, initially Paul’s friend, later John’s confidante, through the quality of his lead guitar playing, exceeding that of both John and Paul; and always, according to Astrid, sensitive to them both. The Beatles first recorded composition was actually the Harrison and Lennon tribute to the English group The Shadows Cry For A Shadow
In Living in the Material World Scorsese quite magnificently edits together the case that George was a singular man who dealt with whatever the world threw at him materially whilst being on a spiritual quest that helped him prepare for death, but that didnt stop him wanting to get his revenge on the Taxman in his time of dying. Nineteen for us then; Taxman
Clapton One of the aspects that emerges is George’s close friendship with musical “god” Clapton and their shared Krishna consciousness. Some of George’s best songs have a Clapton input, Here Comes The Sun written in Clapton’s garden and the Weeping of the Gentle Guitar benefitting from Eric coming into the recording studio in order to kickstart The Beatles own disinterested playing on Guitar Gently Weeps;
Hyper-kinetic Wonderwall he may be and so Scorsese keeps the story interesting throughout, the material fresh and the narrative open and evolving. If you like or love the Beatles this is essential viewing, if you are the least bit interested in George then it is fascinating. It is a great 4 hours of social and musical history, especially about the 60s & 70s, with Scorsese’s own interest in how boy gangs grow up and then move into broader social contexts, present throughout. And it is better than any of the fairly hackneyed reviews I’ve seen so far. Give the critics a miss and enjoy yourself I would say.
If you enjoyed this review, or if you like George, then you might like my take on his Beatle career, Beatle George.