Home video shows a cluster of tulips as loved ones speak of the missing auteur. Then, with a shift to film and the drop of a needle, intimacy turns historic. As George Harrison’s majestic “All Things Must Pass” plays, an archival montage of Nazi bombing runs, families in rubble, and Catholic baptisms ends with a slow pan across a family photo that finds the youngest boy with the beatific smile and one of the century’s most private public lives.
If this opening to George Harrison: Living in the Material World hits the same notes as the one in Mean Streets, it’s probably because its subject’s life is a virtual Scorsese archetype: working-class origins, Catholic upbringing, immense talent, dazzling achievement, a lifelong struggle between the carnal and the divine. This film is a surprise landmark for the 69-year-old director, and a revelation. The subject draws from Scorcese’s core obsessions in ways his 2005 film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan could not, and a windfall of new footage released by Harrison’s widow Olivia lets him build a story of terror, grief, sin, and transcendence that feels almost like an auteur career survey. More strikingly, the simple choice of “the quiet one” as narrative filter enables a minor miracle: taking personalities, events, and historical moments we know as well as we know the New Testament and telling an entirely new story, the Gospel According to George.
It’s so new it often reads as historical fiction: the youngest member of a rising band tries his hand at songwriting—supposing that if his two jackass bandmates can do it, as Harrison recalls, “anyone can.” Said jackasses (Lennon & McCartney) are soon outshined by wiser, funnier George, the Nazis defeat the Allies, and the hostile planet turns out to be Earth. This sense of inversion comes early with unseen footage from 1974: a giddy Harrison clambering over a desk to sign legal papers that terminate the Beatles. The images and testimonials that follow reveal just why this man is smiling.
Paul and George meet in a school Paul recalls as being “Dickensian . . . Dickens even taught there— that’s how Dickensian it was.” Paul has his friend audition for John. Soon after, the hot-shot notices his elder’s instrument only has four strings. “I mean, John didn’t realize guitars have six,” says George, who apparently taught John a few rather handy chords, like E and A, and seems to have had the lighter comedic touch as well. George’s brothers establish as much with an anecdote that portrays young John as less cheeky lad than sociopath, part of a volatile core that hits an early-Sixties Hamburg this film paints as Night of the Living Dead, with blood-streaked bodies staggering out of the Reeperbahn darkness.
Beatlemania itself looks a far cry from A Hard Day’s Night. The film introduces it with shattering screams and riot footage suggesting 1971 Belfast, as backstage shots show just how unpsyched the four young inciters look. As familiar footage of moptop hijinks play to Harrison’s queasy, late-Beatles song “Blue Jay Way,” it sinks in just how early anxiety enters with this amount of fame.
Scorsese’s subtle camera movement often turn stills into fully realized vignettes, building tension or freezing on a moment of silent, stunning emotion. Photographer Astrid Kirchherr—the Beatles’s Hamburg muse and den mother—describes a moment just after Lennon’s close friend and bandmate Stu Sutcliffe died. She says how John and George dropped by her place to see the garret where Sutcliffe had painted. She recalls leading them upstairs, starting to snap photos, and asking George to stand beside seated John. The screen then fills with her black-and-white photo: the stone face and brimming eyes of the saddest Lennon we’ve ever seen; George beside him bearing a look of preternatural empathy. “He understood life and death,” Kirchherr says of George. “He brought balance to that group.” He was just 17.
It seems George brought more than balance. The quantum leap comes in ’62 when George Martin takes a reluctant meeting. “I didn’t know what to make of them,” he says, of this upolished band with no lead singer. After recording a few songs, Martin invited them into the control room. “I said, ‘Why don’t you just listen and tell me what you don’t like?,’” Martin recalls. George said, “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start,” a quip that Martin remembers terrifying Harrison’s bandmates and winning them a producer, who then grasped that this group’s star was the four all together (see also: invention of modern pop group).
The Beatles’ performance of Harrison’s breakthrough song, “If I Needed Someone,” is also the film’s first one in color, a Wizard of Oz moment that marks the arrival of George the artist. More items from the alternate Beatle history come quickly on its heels. Yoko Ono says it was George who suggested she and John make The White Album freak-out “Revolution No. 9,” having just recorded his own musique concrète for an experimental film. LSD’s significance starts shrinking the moment George tells a talk-show host that the Beatles tuned in and turned on via spiked coffee served by their dentist. While this did set George on his path towards Indian music and meditation, his trip was hastened by a brief visit to Haight-Ashbury—where previously unreleased photos show his preacher-like figure collecting a trail of hippies, junkies, and glassy-eyed fans demonstrating what dropping out actually out looks like.
New film and photos also reveal the depth of George’s studies with Ravi Shankar, as Harrison shuttled back and forth to India, and seeking the sacred and the profane, writing in a letter home, “Don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker because I haven’t. I love you both more than ever, so it can’t be all bad, can it?” A quick cut to a seedy nightlife scene with Harrison’s sticky “Savoy Truffle” frames this correspondence to recall one from another Scorsese film: “I hope this letter finds you well as it does me. I hope no one has died . . . Love, Travis.”
Interviewees from Phil Spector to Terry Gilliam to Scottish auto racer Jackie Stewart attest to the instincts and generosity this recovering Beatle brought to the rest of his life. Clearly, Scorsese’s tale of a lifelong war between spirit and flesh was somewhat hobbled by the same legacy guardians he needed for access. The film ably attests that Harrison was an incredibly cool-looking rock star (who makes early band photos look like the Clash), as well as talented, witty, compassionate—but not quite Charles Foster Kane. Olivia Harrison once says “[George] did like women and women constantly liked him.” Ringo once alludes to George’s “love, bag-of-beads personality and also the bag of . . . anger.” And McCartney once confides that Harrison “was a red-blooded man and was into things guys like.” Give or take a coke reference, this is as close as we get to the material world burdening George’s ascent.
In 1969, George returned from India with a new song, telling Ringo it was in “seven and a half.” In a present-day interview, Ringo replicates his nod in response: “He might as well have been speaking in Arabic.” The same year, a fledgling director trained his eyes and ears on Woodstock, the unofficial beginning to the end of an era, which was made official when the Beatles ceased to be.
Forty-one years later, Harrison’s seven-and-a-half tune was the most downloaded original in iTunes’ Beatles catalogue. And with this film, “Here Comes the Sun” is more audibly “a George song,” edgier and more protean than the others’ and, in their way, more advanced. They were written by the delighted man we see signing a death warrant for the world’s best rock band, and who left the world in much the same way. “There was a profound experience,” Oliva Harrison says of her husband’s death. “Let’s just say you wouldn’t need to light the room if you filmed it.”
© 2011 by Chris Norris