The Third Beatle

Five years in the making, Martin Scorsese’s feature-length documentary George Harrison: Living In The Material World enjoyed a one-performance-only premiere at selected arthouse cinemas last night. It’s released on DVD on October 10, with an airing on BBC2 pencilled in for late November. I imagine the DVD will be the full-length version, at a glorious 208 minutes, and I know HBO are showing it in two parts over two nights, so we must hope that the same will be true on the BBC, as it demands to be seen in full. I’m so glad the Curzon were showing it (with “sold out” notices posted all the way up the stairs and in the lift), as it’s not often that I sit in a cinema for three and a half hours and barely move a muscle or stifle a  single it’s-my-age yawn. It’s a phenomenal piece of work. And though I congratulate myself as someone who pretty much knows the story of the Beatles – and Harrison’s solo career – off by heart, it was full of lovely surprises.

Three and a half hours is no more than George deserves. Lennon and McCartney are eulogised, dissected, appraised, reappraised and hagiographied on a near-yearly basis, and Paul and Ringo are never off our screens or out of our magazines, promoting themselves and their latest wheezes and in doing so demystifying the last vestiges of mystique that may once have surrounded them. (I interviewed McCartney, at length, for a Q cover story in 1997, and although it was a personal milestone for me, I sensed that he was already becoming ubiquitous, and I seem to remember it was not a big-selling issue of the magazine.) But George remains the Third Beatle. The one McCartney told off during the Let It Be sessions. The one Eric nicked the wife off. The one who had a job getting his songs on Beatles albums. The quiet one. The Travelling Wilbury. Even the one who got stabbed in his own home and died of cancer. For me, he is the architect of the best solo Beatle album of all: All Things Must Pass, which is one of my all-time go-to records, and the one who was a mate of Monty Python, two aspects which push him right up my charts.

So, in researching and telling his life story, from bombsite birth in 1943 to sad, accelerated death in 2001, in this much detail, and with this much attention, Martin Scorsese is simply realigning the stars. McCartney is interviewed, and the subject of his old schoolmate brings the best out in him. So is Ringo, who is much less preening and annoying than his default setting (he almost gets the last word). We hear, too, from Olivia Harrison, Dhani Harrison (who also reads out some letters from his dad), Eric Clapton (again, on charming, self-deprecating form, and frank about the Patti affair), Neil Aspinall, Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kirchherr, Patti Boyd and George Martin (who, I fear, may have already said all that he can usefully remember about the Beatles). But it’s the less obvious participants who add the real texture: Jackie Stewart (yes, that one), a drawling Eric Idle, a giggling Terry Gilliam, drummer Jim Keltner, a truly hilarious Tom Petty and Derek Taylor’s widow Joan, who tells a lovely story about their first LSD trip as if recounting a particularly jolly picnic. And Phil Spector may be a bit nutty, but his memories of producing George and his involvement with the Concerts for Bangladesh are valuable.

It was a predictably “older” crowd in the Curzon. I mean, who but those of a certain vintage are going to spend a night out watching old footage and fond reminiscences of a dead Beatle? It was great to commune with these people. I was too young for the Beatles, although as anyone will tell you, growing up in the 70s, their back catalogue was just in the public domain, constantly played on the radio, alongside the solo stuff. (The Beatles singles were, pretty uniquely at the time, reissued in 1976 and they flooded the charts.) My mum and dad had John Lennon’s Shaved Fish compilation in the house, which I enjoyed, but I didn’t really become a student of the Beatles until the late 80s, when a friend really sold me Lennon’s albums, particularly The Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. By the time I got to Q, ready to deepen my knowledge, I had started to expand my CD collection with “classics”, and in what I still consider to be a particularly fallow period for new music in the years 1998-2000, I spent more on old music than at any other time in my life, and became a solo Beatle completist. It was then, belatedly, that I fell in love with All Things Must Pass. Its creation is given ample airtime in Living In The Material World. But then again, so is every stage in Harrison’s life. That’s what you get with a 208-minute running time.

Some observations. George looked the best a lot of the time during the Beatles’ reign. He ended up looking the worst of the surviving three in middle age. Whatever natural fashion sense he’d possessed in the 60s and early 70s departed him. Perhaps it was when he got religion? His haircuts were increasingly misshapen in the 80s and 90s. It’s a shame, too, to find out that he moved to Switzerland to end his days so that he wouldn’t have to pay tax (if that is indeed the reason – Gilliam certainly believes so, giggling at the thought). There’s a priceless moment when George is getting together with Paul and Ringo in the mid-90s for what would be the valedictory Anthology interviews, and he says to Paul, “Vegetarian leather jacket is it?” He was, we were told, a “closet Krishna”, in that he did not shave his head or wear orange, but in other respects, he walked it like he talked it.

A witty, talented and spiritual man who clearly liked his drugs, perhaps a bit too much, and loved the ladies, perhaps a bit too much, his legacy is a whole circle of friends who have nothing but warm things to say about him. For an apparent recluse, he was a real socialite. And the footage of him pottering in the vast grounds of Sir Frankie Crisp’s neo-Gothic Friar Park, tending to the garden without the help of “staff” is heartwarming indeed. Nice, too, to hear Dhani say that to rebel in his household was to go to school.

I often drift off while in the cinema, just for a couple of minutes, and then drift back. I am of that vintage. But I didn’t lose my concentration – or stop smiling, actually – for the whole of this film. It is unique in that regard. And so was George, who is my favourite Beatle. And my second favourite Travelling Wilbury after Tom Petty, at least since last night.

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5 thoughts on “The Third Beatle

  1. I’ve already got my DVD on order, so am really looking forward to settling down with it to have a good long watch.

    And it’s true, George is the one who’s often least regarded in spite of a post-Beatles career that was hardly a damp squib. His back catalogue contains songs that others would have killed for. I think an indicator of his whole take on the early part of his career could be seen from his cameo in The Rutles: having the cash to please himself was fun, but he fundamentally knew what he did was ridiculous in the larger scheme of things. Life was not something to be taken seriously, even though music was (I see that in Frank Zappa too).

    If he’d only been in the Beatles, that would have been enough, but there’s loads of stuff that’s here because of his influence: Life of Brian, Time Bandits, his soio music, and yes, Shanghai Surprise (but everyone’s allowed one dropped bollock).

    Ten years gone, and I miss having him around.

  2. I will also be buying or at least renting the DVD as soon as it comes out. I was devastated to find out that the single showing of the film (in the one cinema in Northern Ireland showing it) was sold out. I’d have loved that communal experience, but the DVD will have to do!

    At 26 years old I would love to contradict your assertion that only people of a certain “vintage” would be interested, but I fear I am the exception which proves the rule. Even those of my friends who are Beatles fans would not commit to over three hours focussed entirely on George! As with yourself, he is definitely my favourite Beatle, and I would actually name him my favourite Wilbury as well. And I must add that “All Things Must Pass” is undoubtedly in my top 5 albums of all time. The beautiful mix of poignancy, sadness but also fun on that album gets me every time. A lot of people don’t like the “big” production, but that’s part of what I love. Oh I’m rambling…. glad you enjoyed it!

  3. I saw it (with a welcome 10 minute interval halfway through) in Dublin and enjoyed it enormously. There’s not much I can add to your comments except to agree that the 208 minutes flew by without me feeling bored, restless or sleepy. All of which are an all too common experience for me at the cinema. One thing I would say, and I’m not the first, is that the absence of a contribution with Dylan and Jeff Lynne was a bit of an omission – Lynne in particular. I first became aware of George Harrison when my brother in law gave me a cassette copy of Cloud Nine in 1988. I thought it was a shame that that record wasn’t mentioned at all in the film – particularly as it was seen as a bit of a comeback at the time – both in terms of a return from a long break from recording and also a return to musical form. I’m not saying it’s the best George Harrison record (clearly that’s All Things Must Pass) but it’s not far from the top of the pile. Would also have liked to hear what Michael Palin might have had to say about Harrison. His diaries hint at an interesting friendship. Although the film wasn’t short on interesting friends, including 2 Pythons, so perhaps Palin’s inclusion wasn’t really necessary.

    One thing that surprised me was the amount of interviews he did. I always thought he was reluctant to talk about his past but clearly not! What were they for? Were some from the Anthology? There seemed to be some from much later than that too. I’d never seen any of them before. And those clothes…

    However, very minor complaints aside, i thought it was a marvelous way to spend three and a half hours. And one thing that I haven’t really mentioned in reviews that I think should be highlighted is just how funny it is. More so than Scorcese’s somewhat referential Dylan movie, this was genuinely laugh out loud at various points. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by that but I was.

    Only gripe I have about the night is that I got home and realised I lost my wallet sometime after arriving at the cinema and haven’t found it since. Thankfully i learnt a vital lesson during the film – that financial wealth isn’t the answer and love is more important. Easy for George Harrison to say that – he probably never had a bank tell him it would be 3 to 5 working days before he could withdraw any cash from his account!

    Great movie. I’m already looking forward to the tv broadcast.

  4. Did Macca tell him off during the Let It Be sessions, or did he just unintentionally rub him up the wrong way by being overbearing and patronising? Leading to George effectively telling Macca off? That’s how I remember it but I haven’t seen it for a long time.

    I think it’s fair to say that Lennon enjoyed a sort of on-off succession of short purple patches throughout his career. McCartney had a fairly staggering one between 1966 and let’s say 1970 (but I rate most of his singles up to the early eighties very highly, if you leave your lust for deep and meaningful at the door; and let’s face it he was pretty good before ’66 too). But Harrison? I have to say I take the idea that he struggled to get his songs on the albums with a pinch of salt. I mean obviously he didn’t get many on. But I don’t believe there was a huge backlog of brilliant Harrison songs being suppressed by Lennon and McCartney. That’s not to denigrate the songs he did get on – I love all of his contributions from ’65 to ’67. But I don’t get any sense that the others were merely tolerating these – I mean Macca’s input into Taxman suggests he really valued the song (I don’t know what Harrison made of that input, mind). They spent ages recording his Not Guilty song – and that is frankly pretty rotten. And I believe I Me Mine was the last track they worked on together (with only Lennon absent). I think Harrison hit a short purple patch just as the Beatles were splitting up. Perhaps he was hoarding some songs towards that point. But I think his reputation has probably been greatly enhanced by his output being filtered through one of the toughest quality control tests in the business.

    Just incidentally, if you haven’t seen it, The Winged Beetle film on YouTube is an at least diverting take on the Paul Is Dead thing (www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsPCQ932vlU). Bollocks, obviously, but diverting. Actually the finished thing is less interesting than some of the weirder short clips they posted as it went along. This may have been widely remarked upon but I’d never seen it referred to: if you freeze the film at 11:10 there’s a competition apparently set by McCartney in 1966 that may or may not shed light on his relationship with Jane Asher (and clearly ties in with the dirty story of a dirty man whose clinging/cleaning wife doesn’t understand).

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