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.