Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NYFF 2011: George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

As you grow, your musical tastes often change like your palate. The joy of tasting olives or a fresh snap peapod is usually an experience of adult, not childhood. Conversely, I find myself craving Space Food Sticks much less now than when I was ten. Musical changes in taste evolve and mature as well, sometimes even within the same band. A Beatles fan at a young age, ask me who my favorite of the Fab Four was before I turned fourteen and I would probably answer with Ringo: goofy, affable, offbeat; the clear star of the movies that introduced me to the Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, Help, Yellow Submarine). Ask that same question to me as a record-collecting teen and I’d have said Paul McCartney. The 1970s and early ‘80s were good to Paul with cheerful, infectious pop record after record, and really, what was the problem with silly love songs? In my college years, when I considered myself older and more sophisticated, I gravitated towards the rebellion and anger, but ultimately love, of the songs of John Lennon. His death in a year when I was first on my own drew me closely to his music and philosophy and to endless conversations with like-minded fans on the subject of “Yoko: Threat or Menace.”

And now I’m much older and find myself above all a fan of George. No, not producer George Martin (that may yet come in my dotage) but George Harrison. The “hippie” Beatle, the “quiet” one, the fighter trying to get his songs on an album, the humanitarian who pioneered the modern benefit concert, the quiet country gentleman and film producer. He’s been my favorite for quite some time for quite a lot of reasons: his involvement and support of the Monty Python troupe (without him we’d never had had The Life of Brian, one of the most brilliant religious satires of our time); his co-founding of HandMade Films, the studio that brought us more than a fair percentage of my favorite movies of all time (Time Bandits; Mona Lisa; Withnail and I; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), his gentle religious and spiritual philosophy that defines my own more than organized religion, and his music: the unmistakable sound of George’s guitar playing is one of the three guitarists I can identify by listening to an unidentified song. His sublime (and, heck, even his substandard) solo work of the 1970s and ‘80s, the back-to-your-roots collaboration of the Traveling Wilburys, his all-too infrequent film cameos. His collaboration with Belinda Carlisle, of all people. The songs that would threaten to fill up my own Desert Island Discs with an all-Harrison playlist: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “Here Comes the Sun.” “All Things Must Pass.” “Give Me Love.” “Love Comes to Everyone.” Heck, for “Blow Away” all by itself.

I’ve now rambled for two long paragraphs without even mentioning George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the documentary directed by Martin Scorsese. You might guess I’ve seen quite a few documentary films on the Beatles and the individuals of the Fab Four. Hyperbole aside, and allowing me my love of Harrison, this is one of the finest Beatles biofilms I’ve seen. You don’t have to be a Beatles fan to enjoy this (but if you are, you’ll likely love it). It’s often all too simple to throw a bunch of interviews, stock footage and still photographs together and call it a documentary, but those never reach the true state of being a film. Scorsese knows how motion pictures tick: the pacing and timing of Living in the Material World is enthralling and driving as much as if it were a fictional story—there are no “slow bits.” If you’ve seen a group of Beatles documentaries, especially The Beatles Anthology, you’ve seen the same footage pop up again and again: here’s the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Here’s the Beatles getting off a plane. Here’s the Beatles meeting Queen Elizabeth I. (Yawn.) But Scorsese has found a treasure trove of footage I’ve never seen, a surprise considering the long media exposure of his subject. There’s lots of compelling interviews. Paul and Ringo appear, of course, but also friends and collaborators from his whole life: Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Ravi Shankar, Klaus Voorman, Astrid Kirchherr, Phil Spector, Jackie Stewart.

Intimate and personal, Living in the Material World takes us inside the private life of Harrison (and he was an intensely private man). Extensive coverage is given to his philosophical and spiritual evolution during the 1960s-70s, featuring fuller and more incisive interviews and examinations of that period of Harrison’s life than I’ve seen on screen. For a biography of one of the most media-covered men of the latter half of the twentieth century, Living in the Material World is surprising in its wealth of new and underused footage. When this comes out on DVD, this is going to be a must-have for all Beatles fans.

It succeeds, though, on the level of being just a wonderfully entertaining film. It’s a filmmaker of the caliber of Martin Scorsese who can take interviews and footage and spin them into a true film, with story beats, subplots, and recurring characters. We know the story will end with George’s death in 2001…and the tears come to my eyes long before the film reaches that point…but Scorsese spins the inevitable masterfully, so that you can’t help but feel more connected to George Harrison than before. Going in as a Harrison fan I felt it was a great celebration; I can imagine this film will inspire the uninitiated or casual fans to a much greater understanding and appreciation.

In my opinion, the finest thing I can think of to say about a biographic documentary is that it inspires you to celebrate the life you’ve just seen on the screen, to revisit and examine the life and work of the subject, and to find new meaning or joy within. So powerful was Scorsese’s film that I came home from the movie and broke out my George Harrison CDs and listened to them all day, and several songs a day since, reminding myself of the happiness, comfort, humor and humanity within them. As I said above: George is my favorite Beatle. Even if he weren’t already, I’m pretty sure he would be now.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World is airing on HBO in two parts throughout October 2011.

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