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Zettel Film Reviews » George Harrison: Living in the Material World – Martin Scorcese

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George Harrison: Living in the Material World – Martin Scorcese






George Harrison: Living in the Material World – Martin Scorcese

Don’t, please don’t if you can possibly help it, watch this on Television or by extension, on DVD. If you can find a way, see it in a cinema on a full size screen. As it is on TV this coming weekend this may be futile advice as I suppose that signals the end of its minimal cinema release. It is extraordinary that Martin Scorcese of all people should not have stood out for a better distribution of this beautifully assembled, brilliantly edited, very moving documentary. If film-makers themselves don’t have faith in the unique value of cinema, then how shall the public be persuaded?

Nothing would dishonour the memory of this extraordinary man more, eternally young in our dominant memories of him, than if the decision to go to TV and then DVD so quickly was based upon commercial opportunism. None of the main participants, Producers Harrison’s widow Olivia or Scorcese himself, can be so hard up as to have been forced to sacrifice the power and impact of this film on the big screen simply to optimise revenues through sales to TV and DVD.

There are three main reasons to avoid the inevitable ‘domestication’ of the images inherent to the Television medium. First and most obvious: Harrison’s music and the story of its creation, performance and fascinatingly varied growth and development, are central to his restless, questing, extraordinary journey through life. As such the full impact of that music is best achieved in a cinema setting. This is not just a question of volume or audio definition – it is the special balance between image and music possible in a cinema setting that cannot be reproduced at home however modern your technology.

The second reason is related to arguments I have advanced before (Cinema vs Video/DVD and essay on 3D) about the unique intimacy offered by the cinema screen. Living in the Material World is a profoundly intimate film; for while in life iconic figures like Harrison became hugely adept at managing their image and perception by the public,  hostile and friendly;  Scorcese has the freedom to show us the man behind the myths and manufactured truths, and the imagery of private and selective use of archive footage to reveal to us in death the man so adept at hiding himself in life. There is a deep trust involved in Scorcese’s role which he more than justifies with the way he assembles our insights into George Harrison the man and the musician.

The third reason is one always at the back of my mind about cinema but harder to argue in recent times because of the lamentable decline of general behaviour in movies. I was fortunate to see this film at the beautiful, renovated Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted where audience behaviour is impeccable: there once the lights go down no noise or movement distracts from one’s absorption in the film. With a running time of 208 minutes a planned interval is a good decision but in 3 hours 20 minutes running time not a sound was heard in the Rex – a testimony both to the understanding of the watchers and the quality of Scorcese’s film. When conditions like this can be experienced (and the BFI is the only other place I know that guarantees it), I would argue that the awareness of cinema as a shared activity adds greatly to the psychological atmosphere, tone if you will, of the experience.  By the very nature of Harrison as the subject, with the incredible conflicts generated between unparalleled public acclaim, even idolatry and a private, personal identity; it seems especially fitting that this insight into his life is a shared, public experience – for this was the relentlessly inescapable context of his life from the age of 17 in 1960 till his death at 58 in November 2001.

Scorcese shows us a restless, questioning young man trying to follow a personal path, a spiritual journey, within a lifestyle as insanely unreal, impossibly pressurised and deeply undermining of personal values and beliefs as it is possible to imagine. Like many artists, this under-rated musician and much under-rated songwriter held on to the constant, unbroken thread of his love of music to, if not stay sane, then return to sanity, when, however ludicrously, he was treated like a god, or a saint by a public almost demented in its attitude to him and the other Beatles.

I did not know much about Harrison, the ‘quiet’ Beatle before seeing this film but he comes over as a man of charm, integrity, passion for music, and great sense of fun – all testified to by the roll call of famous musicians and friends whose interviews are spliced tellingly and effectively within the archived and private footage. That he had his share of personal flaws one feels Harrison would have been only too willing to confess and admit – with appropriate regret or apology. On the other hand he appears to have possessed the rare gift of offering and receiving true and loyal friendship.

This is no hagiography but I am sure there were darker sides of George Harrison not explored. However as a fascinating insight both into a talented, creative man and the extraordinary, almost at times random-seeming process of creativity, Living in the Material World is absorbing and finally deeply moving. The fact that most of the people who knew him well felt their lives the better for having known him; and for the many beautiful and expressive songs he has left us – this privileged insight into his life is well-justified and moving in ways I had not expected.

Well worth seeing: even on TV if you must. But you will miss much.

Perhaps nothing better captures the spirit of the man, the musician and the charm of this film than three connected moments within in it. The film opens with images from 1943, the year of George’s birth. Beside archived pictures of the war, we see another George, Formby, as immensely popular then as his namesake was to become just 20 years later. Like Harrison, Formby was a working class lad with a cheeky chappie manner relishing catchy tunes with often saucy lyrics. George became a fan not just of Formby but also of his trademark ukulele. Fellow rock guitarist and friend Jeff Beck tells of Harrison turning up one day with a car-full of ukulele’s and teaching a bemused Beck how to play them while walking around the gardens of his house.  He left 4 ukes with Beck saying “you never know when you might need one.”  Then late in the film we see Harrison perched, cross-legged like a gnome on the piano playing the Ukulele with a palpable sense of fun in a Formby-like rendition of Between the Devil and The deep Blue Sea and surrounded by musician friends also having a ball.

For all the important, serious, spiritual soul-searching, immense wealth and fame one is tempted to feel the most fitting epitaph for this rather likeable man might be, fully appreciating the double meaning: “George Harrison – he just loved to play.”

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