Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Quiet One

Martin Scorsese's documentary about the life of George Harrison is a three and a half hour marathon, but the film making is so exquisite and feelings of goodwill and love for Harrison expressed by the contributors so profound, it never feels any more taxing than a leisurely evening stroll. Watching most of a film is an unsatisfying experience at the best of times, but there is something really grating about watching most of a very good film. Unfortunately, in this case, time was against me.

This is a sumptuous film though. I watched it with a smile on my face almost throughout. But it is clearly made to appeal to people of a certain age, who enjoy sitting down in their favourite armchair with a nice chocky bicky and reminiscing about how 'wild' they used to be. One sequence in which an old friend remembers the first time George and John gave her and her husband lysergic acid and they watched the sunrise - 'Sitting in an Engligh garden waiting for the sun,' she says - is almost satirical in its Middle Class pretentiousness, the woman describing the trip as if it were a nice country picnic.

Living in the Material World is an idealised and sentimentalised version of the George Harrison story. All of the talking heads are captured by Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson's loving camera, older faces bathed in the warm, forgiving light of magic hour - even the faintly alarming Phil Spector looks presentable, a clear testament to Richardson's talents as a cinematographer.

Certainly, Harrison had no shortage of celebrity friends and admirers, many of which appear in the film - Paul McCartney (who comes across particularly well) and Ringo Starr are both prevelent, as are Harrison's window, Olivia Harrison, his son, Dhani, and his ex-wife, Pattie Boyd. Eric Clapton is good humoured but reflective, Tom Petty, Yoko Ono, Eric Idle, Ravi Shankar, a giggling Terry Gilliam and a surprisingly insightful Phil Spector also feature. Indeed, Harrison had so many celebrity friends, some are notably by their absense, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne, in particular.

Some of the best moments, however, come from the non-celebs. His two older brother's recollections about their childhood growing up together in a two-up, two-down in Liverpool and their opinions of one of the band's first performances at a family wedding (prior to Hamburg) - John Lennon poured a pint over one of George's older female relatives when she started playing pub songs on the old Joanna between sets - have a down-at-heel authenticity that the rest of the film does not and could not have. Harrison prided himself on being a down to earth kind of guy, so it seems - one of his favourite pass times was gardening - and Ringo, Clapo and Macca are no preening, self-important starlets, that's for sure, but, now I think on't, I could have done with more from the brothers and their ilk. We hear Harrison's wonderfully deadpan letter's home during the crazy days of the Beatles - 'We were late leaving, so when we got around to the other side of the building the cars were completely smashed in, the roofs pressed against the seats. 20 girls had to go to hospital. Eventually we made our getaway in an ambulance' - but what did his family think of his success? How did their relationships change when Harrison became part of the biggest rock n' roll group of all time?

Thankfully, not everything makes for comfortable Sunday evening viewing. The film of his life closely tracks the trajectory of his career - the fun, frenzy, chaos, creativity, frustration and finally disappointment of the Beatles, followed by one great solo album and a so-so output after that, with a lot of Indian mysticism in between. The rawkus days and nights in Hamburg at the Reeperbahn, playing massively energetic rock n' roll, hanging out with Astrid and Klaus and having his 17 year old eyes opened to a wider world outside Liverpool. There is also some fantastic early concert footage with decent audio - I had always assumed these performances had been lost to the sound of thousands of screaming teenage girls - and the band sound great! Tight, punchy, brilliant singing. This part of the film, about the mad merry-go-round on tour is a real treat, capturing both the excitment and the trauma of being idolised in such an extreme degree.

Things slow down and get much quieter as we are taken into the studio. Sir George Martin does his usual respectable, classically trained bit about how Decca was a comedy lable and even he didn't think much of what The Beatles were doing when he first heard them. But, he tells us, he warmed to Harrison right away because when he invited them into the recording booth to listen back to what they had been doing so that they could tell him if there was anything they didn't like, he was the first to quip, 'I don't like your tie for a start'.

Most of the major incidents in Harrison's life are discussed as they might be between old friends, skipping over narrative details and getting right to the meat. This is fine for an audience that is already familiar with the story, which, for the most part, I suppose they will be, but it may leave some other people confused. Those who did not know that Eric Clapton broke up Harrison's first marriage by wooing Harrison's then wife may find that particular thread hard to follow. Plus Harrison's drug habits and infidelities are only hinted at. His second wife, Olivia, tells us that it was sometimes difficult living with a man who found it so very easy to bring women under his spell and we are left to fill in the blanks. In other words, short shrift is given to the personality flaws (we all have them), which might have painted a truer portrait of the man, had Scorsese's intention been different.

There are hints that Harrison had a strong sense of humour (Eric Idle describes his decision to fund Monty Python's Life of Brian because 'he wanted to see it' as 'the most expensive cinema ticket in history') and joyous (as opposed to Lennon's caustic) wit, there are hints of the betrayal he must have felt when one of his best friends (Eric Clapton) stole his wife, and there are hints about the hole he was trying to fill with religion. Small cracks are allowed to emerge, and those are golden, but, ultimately, the mask remains unbroken. When I went into the film, I knew that George Harrison was the quiet one who got religion and Indian spirituality and stayed mates with the other three. This film did little to undermine or subvert those pre-conceived ideas.

What makes the film worth watching, however, are those little moments, the glimpses behind the mask. 1) Macca wins a thousand credibility points for his reminisences of the boy he went to school with who had a fantastic haircut - longish hair fashioned into a spectualar quiff - which one of his friends described as looking like a "fookin' turban". Harrison's hair was immaculate. 2) Phil Spector's shrewd commercial sensibility picking My Sweet Lord as the first single off of All Thing's Must Pass - Harrison was worried that it was too overtly religious, he wasn't sure he wanted to make that kind of a statement - Spector reassured him, 'It doen't matter. That is a hit record'. 3) Eric Clapton's laughter in response to the recital of an incident when George left the band during the recording of the White Album and Lennon said, 'Why don't we get in Eric?' 4) And Harrison's dawning realisation that he wanted to write songs as well as play them, 'I figured, if John and Paul can do it then anyone can.'

I don't think I am being unfair when I say that George Harrison is not as interesting a character as Bob Dylan (the subject of another epic Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home), or even John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Still, I can hardly recommend this film highly enough. I was entranced. An affectionate portrait of an artist finding his own way, asserting his force of personality in the midst of the massive pressure cooker that was The Beatles. As McCartney correctly states, whenever he hears people talk about the Beatles without George or without Ringo, he always puts them right - 'The Beatles was a square, not a triangle or any other shape. Remove one of those corners - John, George, Ringo or me - and the whole thing falls apart.'

Check out your local art house cinema to see if it is playing near you and if not, look out for it on BBC Four or BBC Two some time in November. I will certainly be watching it again, and not just to catch the end.lunarpark.blogspot.com - The Quiet One - Keyword description


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