A film review by Dave Itzkoff, September 23, 2011.
To the fans who thought they knew him George Harrison was both omnipresent and enigmatic. Of the four members of the world’s most famous band, the Beatles, Harrison made the least effort at being a public figure, and though he shared himself in recordings as disparate as the catchy pop of Taxman, the desolate strains of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and an album of spiritual chants and music that he produced for the Radha Krishna Temple, he could be inscrutable and distant behind it all. Even as he sang Got My Mind Set on You, his consciousness seemed to be focused somewhere else entirely.
To Olivia Harrison, who married him in 1978 and remained with him until his death in 2001, her husband was contradictory in different ways. He was, she said recently, her scoundrel yogi, who partook of the pleasures of this life while he contemplated the next one. And he preserved nearly everything he experienced, whether he was recording his first sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar or retaining fully packed suitcases from trips abroad that he kept as time capsules. But he wasn’t concerned with how posterity would regard him.
When he used to be asked how he’d like to be remembered, he said, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care if I’m remembered,’ Ms. Harrison said in an interview, affectionately imitating George’s clenched Liverpool accent. And I really think he meant that. Not in a sarcastic way, but it’s like: Why do you have to be remembered? What’s the big deal?
These many sides of Harrison — the artist and the archivist; the mystic and the mystery — are all on display in a new documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, directed by Martin Scorsese, which HBO will show in two parts on Oct. 5 and 6 .
Though the story of the Beatles has been told in many forms before, including in The Beatles Anthology, the documentary, record and book series released by Harrison, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney beginning in 1995, Living in the Material World is a significant and substantially new take on the band and its most elusive member. It is the first film to center on Harrison, the so-called quiet Beatle, and the first time Mr. Scorsese, whose roster of rock documentaries is gradually rivaling his celebrated résumé of fiction features, has focused on the Beatles.
The three-and-a-half-hour documentary would be noteworthy simply for the scope of the material it uses to tell Harrison’s story, including previously unseen footage he kept in Friar Park, his massive estate in Henley-on-Thames, England, and new interviews with band mates, colleagues and loved ones like Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and Dhani Harrison, George and Olivia’s son.
As much as the documentary has to say about its subject it reveals an enduring kaleidoscope of perspectives on Harrison, who continues to fascinate and confound his admirers long after his death.
For Mr. Scorsese the project has allowed him to immerse himself in the life of a fellow artist who, like him, was never at rest.
Harrison’s songs were not typical blues-based rock songs, they were different in their structure and content, Mr. Scorsese wrote in response to questions sent by e-mail. As a person he seemed to be always changing and moving towards one deep interest after another, whether music, meditation, movies or the restoration of the gardens at Friar Park.
But for Ms. Harrison the film is a public unfurling of her husband’s life as well as her own, one that took her several years to become comfortable with.
On a late summer visit to the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan, Ms. Harrison, 63, was smartly attired and articulate but did not necessarily seem comfortable in the spotlight. Regarding her husband’s legacy, she said, I have an overdeveloped sense of duty. However, she added, I’m not a celebrity.
I almost don’t want people to see it, she said of the documentary, for which she is a producer and an interview subject. It’s like showing everybody into your most private place.
Though her continuing affection for Harrison was abundantly evident as she spoke, she was not blind to his past battles with substance abuse or the life he led before meeting her. Asked if she knew that a documentary about her husband would invariably require a recounting of the story behind Layla, Mr. Clapton’s lust ballad about Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s first wife (who later married Mr. Clapton), Ms. Harrison calmly placed her hands over her ears and began to sing, La la la la la.
With a laugh she said, There were certain things that I know, with my life with George, did not define our lives.
Still, she said, if there’s going to be a film made about George, then the most important thing was that his essence be represented, and that’s what Marty has done. She added: And I know it’s truthful because it makes me squirm.
Dating back to The Beatles Anthology, Ms. Harrison said her husband vowed he would do an anthology of his own. When four people do a story, she said, it’s ‘Rashomon.’
To that end Harrison had been saving decades’ worth of photographs, letters and memorabilia as well as footage recorded during numerous interviews or with his own cameras, in formats ranging from eight-millimeter film to digital video. But he was not able to realize his goal before he died of cancer at the age of 58.
Within months of his death, Ms. Harrison said, she started receiving requests from production companies that wanted to make a film about her husband’s life. In 2005 she saw Mr. Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, another weighty meditation on a different countercultural bard, and believed she had found the director to tell Harrison’s story.
In a filmography teeming with gangsters and low lifes, Mr. Scorsese has famously used rock music to stirring effect in the pop and doo-wop soundtracks of movies like Mean Streets and Goodfellas. His fanaticism for rock music has been further confirmed in documentaries like The Last Waltz, about the Band, and Shine a Light, about the Rolling Stones, though Mr. Scorsese said he did not strategize about when to make fiction or nonfiction films.
It’s impossible for me to imagine not making films about music, he said. If you mean, why do you make documentaries in between fiction films, then I have to say that there’s no difference — it’s all following through from the same gesture.
Already intrigued by the idea of a film about Harrison, Mr. Scorsese said he was won over in a meeting with Olivia Harrison where she showed him correspondence from her husband to his mother that was written when he was in his early 20s but that read like the words of a more mature and self-assured man.
He was expressing the idea that he knew there was more to life and existence than wealth and fame, Mr. Scorsese said. That was a person I was interested in getting to know better.
But getting Ms. Harrison to part even temporarily with her husband’s personal items or to speak about him on camera was another story altogether.
I couldn’t let go of anything, she said. It was like: ‘We’d like to borrow a shirt. Could we have your entire wardrobe?’
To accommodate her Nigel Sinclair, a producer of Living in the Material World who had worked previously with Mr. Scorsese on No Direction Home, and his company, Spitfire Pictures, set up a production team at the Harrison estate, scanning and digitizing materials provided by Ms. Harrison.
A second team, in New York, conducted its own research and sought out archival footage, while producers conducted interviews with longtime Beatles associates like the bassist and visual artist Klaus Voormann, who designed the cover of Revolver; the photographer Astrid Kirchherr, who took many of the earliest photos of the band; and the producer Phil Spector, who in 2009 was sentenced to 19 years to life for the murder of the actress Lana Clarkson.
Asked how the meeting with Mr. Spector was arranged, Mr. Sinclair said, We were able to capture that interview before he was no longer available to us, which is a very euphemistic way of saying it, isn’t it?
In other interviews seen in the documentary Mr. McCartney discusses a working relationship with Harrison that was not always an even partnership and could occasionally be contentious; the usually jocular Mr. Starr chokes up and sheds some tears; and Mr. Petty recalls a time when the excitable Harrison, who played with him in the Traveling Wilburys, showed up at his house with a trunk load of ukuleles.
Despite his supremely laid-back demeanor, Mr. Petty said that talking about Harrison on camera was an unexpected challenge.
I’ve done thousands and thousands of interviews, he said. This one was particularly emotional, because that was my big brother. You don’t want to let someone like George be put into a small box, because he really was quite a person who covered a lot of ground.
Ms. Harrison was among the last people to be interviewed, and in one of the film’s most gripping sections she discusses in detail a 1999 incident in which a man broke into the Harrisons’ home and stabbed her husband multiple times before the peaceful couple’s self-preservation instincts kicked in and they physically subdued the intruder.
I didn’t think that should be a defining moment of George’s life, Ms. Harrison said of the attack, but in actual fact something really profound came out of that, and that was the reason to talk about it.
It took about three years to edit the film, a process that continued while footage was still being gathered. Asked how he was able to direct a feature in which he could not predetermine every element to the same degree as in a fiction film, Mr. Scorsese (who was also working on the documentaries Public Speaking and A Letter to Elia during this time) offered an impressionistic response.
Working with interviews and pre-existing images, he said, means patience, letting them speak. Mr. Scorsese added: Once one image is placed against another, once a particular song is paired with a particular set of images, you see how they interact, how they come to life. It’s something like the pieces of a DNA sequence coming together.
Mr. Scorsese said that films like Living in the Material World were no less important to me than movies like Mean Streets or Raging Bull. But David Tedeschi, who edited Living in the Material World and worked previously with Mr. Scorsese on No Direction Home, said documentaries offered the director opportunities that even his fiction features could not.
He can do things on these films that he can’t necessarily do on a commercial film, Mr. Tedeschi said, whether that means not having to constrain the movie to a two-hour running time or taking as much time as he wishes to complete it.
For Ms. Harrison the documentary provides a different kind of satisfaction. Though she is also releasing a book, which shares the title George Harrison: Living in the Material World and contains many of her husband’s photos and letters, she described Mr. Scorsese’s film as the definitive project for me.
I don’t think there’s anything more I can do, she said. That’s one reason I tried to just open up as much as I possibly can. You can’t do this again. Marty’s told this story. It’s a whole life from beginning to end.
Though she remains a partner in Apple Corps Ltd., the Beatles’ company, and forever connected to the spouses and children of her husband’s band mates (whom she called the most kind, embracing people in my life), Ms. Harrison suggested that the documentary was closing a chapter in her life.
Having shared so much of herself and her husband in the film, she was asked, is she now entitled to the freedom to not have to keep doing it?
Thank you very much for saying that, Ms. Harrison replied. You could just say that I said that.
Link to the original article: Within Him, Without Him
A film review by Dave Itzkoff, September 23, 2011.
Labels: documentary, biography, music
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