George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh on August 1, 1971 was the first rock superstar charity concert for an international cause. The show, the documentary film, and the movie soundtrack not only helped raise millions of dollars for a worthy cause, but also brought global attention to the suffering minions of the Asian subcontinent. The success of the project was a direct influence on future events, according to Sir Bob Geldorf of Live Aid and Live 8 fame. The newly released DVD package of the event contains a 45-minute documentary that features interviews with Harrison before his untimely death, Geldorf, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (artist royalties raised by the sale of the two-DVD set benefits the George Harrison fund for UNICEF), and several of the principle performers from the original show such as Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Leon Russell.
Many of the interviewees discuss the energy level at the concert. Shankar said that he and his band of Indian musicians spent about a minute and a half tuning up and were given an enormous round of applause by the audience, who apparently mistook what the musicians were doing for a piece of music. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner mentioned that the overflow crowd filled the Manhattan streets and that one could feel the electricity blocks away from Madison Square Garden.
The new documentary is nice. Besides interviews, it also contains some unreleased musical clips that includes rehearsal footage of Bob Dylan and Harrison on acoustic guitars performing “If Not For You”, Harrison, Russell and Clapton jamming during sound check on Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Come on in My Kitchen”, and a previously unseen performance from the afternoon gig of Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”. The original movie and soundtrack condensed the two shows into one product. In the new documentary, drummer Starr humorously told of the difficulty encountered when Dylan changed the set he played in the afternoon to a different one at night without informing the all-star backing band behind him. During the daytime appearance, Starr and co-drummer Jim Keltner just had to keep a simple four/four beat. That evening Dylan started with a waltz, Starr noted with a wry grin, which threw him and Keltner off. The original film demonstrates that the percussionists readily adapted to the change in tempo. The concert movie reveals other mistakes that occurred, such as when Harrison forgot the words to his self-penned Beatles’ song, “Something”. Harrison embarrassingly laughed it off and continued on like a trooper.
The new documentary ignores obvious questions like; did the concert actually help the people for whom it was intended? News stories at the time reported on greedy lawyers, record company executives, film producers and artists’ managers taking hefty cuts of the take. Also, where were John Lennon and Paul McCartney? This concert was the first musical event featuring a Beatle that occurred after the band broke up. Yes, Ringo was there to help out his former mate, but the other two were missing. Did Harrison not ask them to take part, afraid of being overshadowed or perhaps refused, or did the other two choose not to be there? While criticizing a work created for a charitable cause seems mean spirited, the new documentary would be a zillion times better if it provided even rudimentary information on such topics.
Still, the concert movie itself is the meat and potatoes of the package and the main reason most people will purchase it. Besides the previously mentioned artists, other featured singers and players include keyboardist Billy Preston, saxophonist Jim Horn, and the band Badfinger. Preston did an inspired version of the gospel tune “That’s the Way God Planned It” that featured him enthusiastically running and jumping across the stage, but with the benefit of hindsight reveals how few black musicians and audience members were present. There were some black female back-up singers, but very few people in the crowd were African American. There does some to be a visible presence of an Asian male minority, no doubt related to the cause at hand.
Speaking of women, none of the starring artists were ladies and even the crowd is overwhelmingly male. Perhaps the constituency of the audience was due to socio-economic factors. Tickets must have been pricey and traditionally white men have had the most disposable income. The absence of leading female performers serves as a reminder of the fact of how few big name rock and roll artists of the era were of the distaff sex, and how little interaction Harrison must have had with them. The concert roster was billed as “George Harrison and friends”, but it is difficult to think of any female artists Harrison and The Beatles ever hung out and jammed with.
The concert’s most exhilarating vocal performance must be Russell’s medley of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” with the old Coasters’ tune “Young Blood”. Russell wailed and ranted, cooed and crooned, lectured like a preacher and got lowdown like a sinner as he sung a twisted, nonsensical tale of being true to the one you love. The album cut was a staple of FM radio for years.
Although Harrison was the real star of the show and sang lead on the greatest number of songs (eight out of 16) included in the original movie, Dylan’s presence thrilled the crowd most. The film reveals the increase in excitement that happened when Dylan took the stage. Again, the benefit of hindsight suggests that this was more due to the man’s mystique than his actual talent. This is not meant as a put down. Dylan had not been before a live audience for quite a while and his fans were hungry for an appearance. He just got out there and sang and played acoustic guitar. He performed old material, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. He was less than dynamic, but the crowd went wild just the same.
The visual quality of the disc shows the limits of recording technology in 1971. The images are clearly outlined and the sound is bright, but the video resolution is modest by today’s standards. The DVD is not colorized or improved, it’s the real thing and that’s good. A few modest mini features, such as “The Making of the Film”, “The Making of the Album”, and “The Original Artwork”, are also included in the package. The DVD set won’t gain Harrison and company new fans, but those that love him and the other artists here will treasure this a souvenir of another era. It was a time when anything seemed possible, even saving the world, by getting together through music. As Harrison’s words to the song “Bangladesh” made clear, a friend told him of the pain his country was in and asked the musician to help. Harrison felt he had to try, “Now I’m asking all of you / To help us save some lives.” This DVD package documents Harrison’s sincere entreaty to the Western world. Whether Harrison succeeded or failed says more about the rest of us than it does him.