Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Film Review: Living In The Material World

Still A Dark Horse


A documentary on a music celebrity can be measured by content and insight - what footage did they access and who was willing to contribute and what new light did it shed on the subject? On the first point Martin Scorsese knocks the ball out of the park. Though I didn't feel I knew George any better than before by the end, I was treated to nearly four hours of dazzling and emotionally moving entertainment.

I watched both parts of the film at UK preview and at no point did my attention or enthusiasm flag. In fact I would have happily sat through any outtakes! This beautifully crafted film is packed with concert footage, home movies, press conferences, interviews, photos and documents that I've never seen before, even though I've been researching the Beatles quite heavily for several years here at Beatles Songwriting Academy. There are interviews with (or at least footage of) everyone you would hope to see. Beatles, wives, brothers, son, Pythons and peers. Everyone from Eric Clapton to Eric Idle.

The documentary is constructed entirely from interviews and clips without explanation or analysis. The closest we get to a voiceover is Dhani Harrison reading excerpts from his father's diary and letters to his mum. Though the film is visually stunning it's strange watching the practically square picture forced upon us by the source material. Equally quirky is the sound editing. Scorsese doesn't know the meaning of 'fade'. All the music cuts brutally, sometimes after a few seconds. Sometimes this is cool. Mostly it's odd. The film is largely chronological and there are some great juxtapositions of sound and visuals like All Things Must Pass accompanies footage of the WW2 bombers that plagued Liverpool during Harrison's birth. The first part covers George's life up to the White Album.


It's hard to pick out favourite parts. But Harrison's obvious delight watching archive footage of the Beatles miming This Boy, laughing and singing along, is one. The Beatles performing If I Needed Someone, Harrison playing What Is Love? with Billy Preston, and seeing the Travelling Wilburys in the studio would be others.

There are moments of laugh out loud humour, especially TV footage of crusty professors discuss the significance of Pop music while Beatles and Mick Jagger seeth like captive wild animal in the background and Tom Petty recounting Harrison arriving at his house with a trunk full of ukeleles. But Harrison's story of how Lennon and McCartney inspired him to start composing is the best -

"If John and Paul can write [songs] everybody must be able to".

The Maharishi (a spiritual Joe Pasquale) and Phil Spector (a croaking, unblinking vision of craziness with a permanently twitching thumb) also provide some unintentional humour.


Scorsese deserves praise for not going down the revisionist myth making route trodden by the Anthology series, especially as Olivia Harrison was one of his producers. Olivia is honest, though vague, about George's infidelity as is Klaus Voorman is about his drug problems. But the lack of a narrator almost makes George a mirror in which we see his world. We know he was loved, deeply, by friends - racing drivers, comedians and film makers, musicians, but we don't whether he was truly loveable. Terry Gilliam describes George as a mix of "grace, humour and a weird kind of angry bitterness" but what made him that way? Did he ever find a release from that bitterness? Was he a good father? Nearing death Harrison asked Olivia if he had been a good husband. She never tells us what her answer was."What's the secret of a long marriage?" She asks herself. "Don't get divorced".

It may sound strange but the highest point for me was simply hearing the music. Listening to Here Comes The Sun and While My Guitar Gently Weeps I was almost moved to tears at the transcendent beauty of those recordings.

Perhaps the fact that the film cause me to fall in love with the music all over again is it's greatest recommendation.

5 comments:

  1. I'll look forward to watching this sometime. Thank you Matt, knew I could rely on you to provide a review that would tell me what I needed to know.

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  2. George Martin tells a story in this film wherein he rejected George's first offering to Sgt. Pepper because he felt the song was boring, and asked George to go home and try harder. Leaving aside how insulting this might have been to GH, I wonder: what song was this first offering? George ultimately released all of the songs he had rattling around from the Beatle days. Was the song "Isn't It A Pity," which GH wrote in 1966?

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  3. Hey SC it was Only A Northern Song which appeared on Yellow Submarine. Isn't It A Pity was much later, I think. I think GM was right about Northern Song - I don't think GH took it seriously when he wrote (as it's a thinly veiled did at his publishers). The biggest crime against Harrison for me was missing All Things Must Pass off Let It Be

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  4. Dear Matt,

    Thanks for the response. You are probably right that the song in question was OANS. But Isn't It A Pity was written in 1966, for Revolver, so who knows? (CItation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isn%27t_It_A_Pity)

    Given that the chord progression at the end of IIAP is basically the same as the end of Hey Jude, I wonder if there's some cross-hybridization.

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