Martin Scorsese’s portrait of ‘the quiet Beatle’ is a celebratory, star-studded affair – and a suitable tribute to a remarkable life
It’s quite incredible, really, to consider that the earliest recording of The Quarrymen, the band who would become The Beatles, is a song credited to ‘McCartney/Harrison’. That it would be a further five-and-a-bit years on from 1958 and ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’ before the latter half of that partnership’s name again appeared between brackets and under a song title says a lot about the people that he ended up in a band with. Were they more talented? Maybe. Were they more confident, more the sort of people to push themselves to the front of the queue, shout louder than anyone else, and that crucial little bit more advanced in years? Definitely. “Paul was always nine months older than me,” said George in 1995. “Even now, after all these years, he is still nine months older!”
Thus, out of circumstance, ‘The Quiet One’ was born. But, like all quiet ones, George Harrison was also complex. Take a look at any of those still very early attempts at songwriting, back when his more celebrated bandmates were bashing out ‘I/You/She Loves Me/Her/You’ enormo-hits to order, and you’ll find a less straightforward tack being taken: “Go away/Leave me alone” goes ‘Don’t Bother Me’, his first contribution to a Beatles album; “You’ve tried before to leave me/But you haven’t got the nerve” he sings in ‘You Like Me Too Much’ on ‘Help!’. Progress to ‘If I Needed Someone’ on ‘Rubber Soul’, and you get “Carve your number on my wall, and maybe you will get a call from me”: as brutally honest a line about groupies as anyone’s ever written.
It’s not hard to see, then, why George Harrison is the Beatle who most appeals to director Martin Scorsese. Plus, really, it doesn’t take an AFI Life Achievement Award-winner to notice the great narrative: from maligned songwriter, through to enthusiastic mystic, to initially most successful solo artist, to organiser – inventor, even – of charity rock gigs (1971’s Concert For Bangladesh, curated with Ravi Shankar), to cult film-funder (Monty Python’s Life Of Brian) and former of a supergroup (Travelling Wilburys). Living In The Material World goes to all these places and more. Of course, given the co-operation of EVERYONE you could wish for, the overwhelming air is celebratory rather than investigative.
Aspects of his life are skipped over: from his never-ending tax avoidance, to his panned later solo albums (in fact, even the hugely successful ‘Cloud Nine’ from 1987 isn’t mentioned), to his escapades with other women. “Challenging” is how his wife Olivia describes the role of these girls in their marriage – an understatement.
But these – along with the over-familiar yarns spun by Ringo and Paul – are minor gripes.
As a celebration, this film couldn’t be better. There are loads of revelations for the geeks, and plenty of well-placed rare footage (plus, who could ever get bored of seeing the Beatlemania scenes?). As for the characters, Phil Spector – who produced ‘All Things Must Pass’ – is simply terrifying. Tom Petty recalling Harrison’s reaction to Roy Orbison’s death – “Aren’t you glad it’s not you?” – is hysterical. Eric Idle remembering how he bailed out Life Of Brian to the tune of £3 million just because he wanted to see it – “the most anyone’s ever paid for a cinema ticket!” – is brilliant. And Olivia’s teary-eyed recollection of the knife attack on George in their home, and son Dhani’s admiration for his “not-normal” dad, are truly affecting.
Best of all, though, are the young George’s fuss-free, very factual letters home to his folks, desperately trying to reassure them through the height of Beatlemania that everything is fine and normal. For all the platitudes and memories offered by others, these are what will make you smile the most.