[5 October 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Times I find it hard to say
With useless words getting in my way.
Silence often says much more
Than trying to say what’s been
—George Harrison, “That Is All”
“Whatever his faults were, he had karma to work out.” Olivia Harrison’s recollection of her husband George is less simple and less obvious than it sounds. Since his death from lung cancer a decade ago, he’s almost as well known for his spiritual searching, his exploration of Hinduism and work with Ravi Shankar, as he is for being a Beatle. In all of these aspects, he was a “very sensual person,” Olivia says, “When I first met him he said, ‘I don’t want you to discover something about me I don’t know. I’m not claiming to be this or that or anything. People think they’ve found you out when, you know, I’m not hiding anything.’”
Olivia’s memory summarizes the contradictions of celebrity, and provides something of a thematic frame for George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Martin Scorsese’s lengthy documentary, premiering on HBO 5 and 6 October, offers what looks like an exhaustive portrait of “the quiet Beatle,” with photos and footage and recordings. But as you watch, and remember some shots or marvel at images you haven’t seen before, you’re aware that these are limited by definition. A performer from the moment he was photographed early on, as a child in Liverpool and then a young guitarist in the group conceived by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Harrison appears quite aware of himself. In this, of course, he’s not unlike other kids posing for family pictures or aspiring rock stars calculating their effects.
And yet he is also George Harrison, a particular version of this ordinary figure, and so he is recalled, refracted, and memorialized by various people who knew him, from various distances. That viewers inevitably have their own views of Harrison, that they imagine they know him or that he’s not hiding anything, helps to complicate the film’s own representation. Harrison is pictured here in various ways, none simple or obvious.
The film goes at its complicated subject in conventional ways. Along with the photos and movie clips, most professional and some homemade, multiple talking heads think out loud about George Harrison, praise his art and marvel at his ingenuity. Some note in passing that he was imperfect (Terry Gilliam, smiling, says he had “a weird sort of angry bitterness” concerning the taxman, and Olivia observes, “He did like women and women did like him, and whether, if he just said a couple of words to a woman, honestly, he had a profound effect on people… I’m not the only one who’s had to deal with this person that’s well loved”), but for the most part, the memories are lovely, evocations of a warm, creative, and admirable individual.
Some of these memories seem personal, that is, performed for the interviewer but also charming or maybe incidental. McCartney describes the school they both attended as boys as “very Dickensian, in fact, Dickens did teach there, that’s how Dickensian it was.” Black and white photos show a young, poof-haired George with a guitar, as Paul recounts that he and John Lennon needed “a good guitar player: John and I could play the guitar, but we weren’t that good, we couldn’t solo.” George auditioned, he says, on a double-decker bus as they rode along the streets of Liverpool. “He played this thing called ‘Raunchy,’” says McCartney, as the film cuts from a photo to a moving picture scene, where the “boys” are signing papers and George is talking—quietly, of course—about “more papers that I don’t know what they say that I’ve signed.”
And so the film reasserts this congenial mythology, that the Beatles were young and hopeful and gifted, that they came together almost accidentally, that their initial boyishness shaped their later lives—or at least the impressions others had of these lives. As they crafted their fiction, with the help of a couple of other musicians and manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin, they grew their hair and put on suits. They also made music, and Eric Clapton remembers that they were remarkable in a few ways: “They were like a single person, it was an odd phenomenon,” he says, that the seemed to move together… almost like a little family.” Hearing them play, he says, “I was overwhelmed by their gift. The sad part was that no one listened to them” because their audience, which they had cultivated, I suppose, were 12-year-olds.”
Here the film cuts to TV panel interview, with a painfully young and silent Mick Jagger lighting a cigarette, as an older guest opines on “This whistling and wailing and the possession of the soul of these young girls”: it’s an odd, uncontextualized, and even disconcerting moment. Jagger doesn’t appear elsewhere in the film, only as this bit of historical backdrop, another example of a manufactured manchild sold to screaming 12-year-olds. His pale face and awkward manner here provide a seeming other story for the Beatles, for Harrison, and probably for Clapton too, wherein the wild ride is quite inexpressible, as much as experts or other outsiders might delineate or guess at it. Ringo says later that being a Beatle was an experience that can’t be translated: “No one else will ever understand that.”
Even so, the movie gestures toward explanation. In part, that’s managed by contrasts and comparisons, so the experience of being George Harrison is like or unlike another. Clapton here suggests the differences between the Beatles’ creative and political choices and his own, while he also notes his special affinity with Harrison. They both played guitar, of course, and worked at it, seriously. “I think we shared a lot of tastes too,” Clapton adds, “Superficial things like cars or clothes and women, obviously” (not needing to say out loud that they both married Pattie Boyd). What was important though, was not such superficial things, but their understandings of music as art and a business. Each saw what the other had and what he didn’t’. If Clapton was, for much of his career, “a kind of free agent,” Harrison’s early immersion in a world-famous band simultaneously limited and expanded options. The Beatles had money, of course (Harrison says in an archival interview, “By having money, we found that money wasn’t the answer”), but they also had limits and contracts, debates and competitions within the group.
The film treats their breakup as the foregone conclusion it is, looking very closely at the Beatles as a phenomenon or even as history. Assuming you know the plot, the film instead offers impressions: montages under songs written by or featuring Harrison, brief observations about unexplored contexts. Phil Spector describes a recording session for All Things Must Pass that was “chaos,” Jane Birkin remarks the “cultural revolution in the ‘60s, which touched on every branch of life,” Eric Idle holds forth on “existence,” which is “kind of funny because of our temporality. Here we go round pretending to be kings and emperors and you’re going to die, you’re in a box in a minute or two, you know. So we are constantly undercut by our own physicalities, our own physical bodies, which let us down.”
If such comments seem to have little to do Harrison per se, they might hint at the questions he yet embodies. “People say I’m the Beatle that changed the most,” he muses in an old interview, “The whole thing is to change, to make everything better and better.” Even as the movie lays out a series of events, some highly publicized (the man who invaded Olivia and George’s home and almost murdered both) and some less known (Joan Taylor, Derek’s wife, remembers a visit with George, John, and Paul involving LSD, her story accompanied by photos of John’s psychedelically painted Rolls Royce and George’s similarly decorated Mini: “We spent the whole might with them on this mind adventure, which Paul had described to us as ‘controlled weirdness,’ and if it wasn’t very controlled, it was weird. It was wonderful and it bonded us”), it focuses less on their connections or even their chronology than it does on the many facets of Harrison they might represent.
Olivia suggests that Harrison’s most deeply developed relationships occurred in and through music. Certainly, his several interactions with Ravi Shankar represented in Living in the Material World suggest that he believed music to be a most effective means to communicate and also to discover oneself. “Everything is passed down in music,” offers Shankar during one exchange, and Harrison follows up: “The first person who ever impressed me in my life was Ravi Shankar,” he says, “He taught me so much without saying a word.” The film can’t repeat or reveal or even vaguely translate such lessons. And so it leaves you with impressions, by Harrison and his friends, and leaves it to you to find what’s not hidden.