Within George, Without George: new Quiet Beatle biopic rocks, moves festival audience

3 Sep

A hearty hello from one of the most beautiful places on earth!  Tonight I write from Telluride, Colorado.  I am grateful to be a part of the fastidious, fabulous staff of the 38th Telluride Film Festival in this tiny town full of mountain highs.

Telluride Film Festival. Image via Lane Scarberry. http://lanescarberry.photoshelter.com/

Tonight was opening night.  One of the first films to screen was Martin Scorsese’s newest documentary film, GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD.  The prolific Scorsese co-produced the film with Olivia Harrison, George’s wife, having previously proved his rock ‘n roll mettle with the Bob Dylan doc  NO DIRECTION HOME (2005) and the historial account THE BLUES (2003).  Few in the house were unaffected by the time Olivia Harrison and executive producer Margaret Bodde took the stage for a Q and A following the Show.

I appreciated the film’s very un-VH1 “Behind the Music” approach.  No mention was ever made of how the Beatles formed, how Stuart died, the financial terms of the band, or basically any of the other flotsam any serious fan would know.  Yet at the same time, the film’s launching right in was equally accessible to audiences whether they own one copy of the Beatles’ Anthology for use and one for a collector’s item, or if they have little to no knowledge of the band.  In two parts and 220 minutes, the biopic follows Harrison – or rather, Harrison documents his own life and Scorsese and his team artfully put together the pieces – up to and past the end of his life.  In fact, death is an ongoing, provocative theme throughout the film.

LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD covers Harrison’s upbringing in Liverpool (“If you go to a wedding in Liverpool, people ask ‘How many fights were there?'” says one of George’s brothers), juvenile musical collaborations with Paul McCartney in a truly “Dickensian” school, and early Beatles years in rowdy Hamburg with Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best (before Stuart’s untimely death and Ringo’s entrance onto the scene) in Part One.  Part Two sees Harrison off into the realm of what the press terms ‘mysticism’ and the breakup of the band, George’s emergence as an independent artist in collaboration with Phil Spector (who gives an insightful yet somewhat chilling interview), his meeting Olivia and having a son together, and the attack on the Harrisons’ home and his final cancer relapse.


The music is undoubtedly the star of the film.  New 5.1 remasters of the original Beatles and Harrison tracks reverberated the Palm theatre with sonic power.  Combined with the jagged, imperfect sounds of the demos, the songs made the film (they were even given the first slot in the end credits).  From the passage through Beatlemania to Harrison’s spiritual voyages in India with Ravi Shankar through the superold supergroup Harrison formed with Roy Orbison, Tom Petty Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan, the Traveling Wilburys, music drives the plot and grounds it in the constantly changing history of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Sound is engineered in LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD in a way that no song’s power is ever taken away by being placed on backup track; music is in, on full blast, or the film is much quieter.  This is one of the film’s strongest areas.  Another nontraditional approach is in the interviews: no one can get the intimate answers Martin Scorsese can.  Talking heads have no initial introduction by text.  Only characters whose presence aids the story are identified in the impressive, extensive archival photograph collection or later in their interviews.

One production aspect I was initially not sure was effective was the use of voice over narration by an actor playing Harrison.  But as the story progressed I realized how rich the material in Harrison’s own journals was, and though it was striking to hear these passages read by another man with a Liverpudlian accent, in the end the V.O. was a helpful way to provide more insight into this mysterious man. Three and a half hours, and I still want to learn more about my favorite Beatle!  But as Paul McCartney says, “He’s my mate. I can’t give everything away.”  I feel the same way about Telluride.

In short, I loved my first film since the official start of the festival.  I’m getting to see great friends from last year and enjoying the year-out lens of a former P.A.  I also managed to interact with Werner Herzog during my greenroom shift without peeing my pants!  So, I’d say that TFF XXXVIII is off to a splendid start thus far.


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