With THE LAST WALTZ, Martin Scorsese assembled some of the finest cinematographers in history and captured the epic last concert of The Band. He interspersed concert footage with behind-the-scenes interviews, crafting one of the finest documentations of that period of music. With SHINE A LIGHT, he brought 70mm IMAX production to a contemporary Rolling Stones show, with the documentary portion even more slight than WALTZ provided. Surpassing both these films is the his overlooked Dylan documentary, NO DIRECTION HOME, a stunning achievement in long-form documentary, delving deep into the myth and music of Mr. Zimmerman anchored by the most remarkable and engaging interviews ever captured of the often misanthropic artist.
His latest film draws from each of these works and crafts a compelling if not entirely definitive look at the “quiet” member of The Beatles. Running on HBO in two parts (having played theatrical at both the Telluride and New York film festivals), this is Scorsese’s first documentary not directly involving a living subject. To provide George Harrison’s voice he employs a copious amount of interview footage, much of it gleaned from both the Anthology documentary sessions and the 30th Anniversary of ALL THINGS MUST PASS, shot shortly before his death. George’s own take on things is crosscut with interviews by a startling range of subjects, many of whom have been noticeably absent from other Beatles documentary projects.
Despite being produced in part by George’s last wife, Olivia, the film rarely if ever feels like some sort of hagiography. Much like the closure brought through the astounding Baez interview in NO DIRECTION, having on-camera discussions with Clapton and Patty Boyd regarding one of the more famous cuckoldings in Rock history. Yoko provides some engaging insight, as does the inclusion of both Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr (who I can’t recall seeing in any previous project). Thus, even the (very) well tread story of George’s time with the Beatles, occupying much of the first half, includes many details never before revealed.
A wide range of interview subjects are chosen, with Warren Zanes credited as the principal person responsible for the bulk of them (Olivia Harrison is also credited along with several other Additional interviewer). Thus, unlike WALTZ or the Stones talk, this isn’t “Martin Scorsese talks to some Rock Gods”, but a far more collaborative and rich assemblage of a variety of materials that nonetheless coheres into an engaging and insightful portrait of the man.
Structurally, the film uses vintage performances and these interviews to tell a rough chronological story. The film is bookended with a shot, apparently filmed by George himself, of him playfully smiling through some flowers in his garden. We’re quickly drawn into the sticky walls of the Cavern, through to the raunch of Reeperbahn and onto the stages of Sullivan and Shea in America. Paul and Ringo (notably the only participants who don’t seem to necessitate a chiron introducing them) seem more at ease with their interviews, and are far less reticent than their more staid interviews they made for the Anthology project. With full access to Harrison’s estate, the project presents extremely rare footage and artifacts, with George’s son Dhani reading from his dad’s diary or letters home sent from the road. We follow the rise and fall of the Beatles, and the inclusion of the LET IT BE footage, with Paul and George having what seems even today to be a minor fight, particularly in light of the knock-down ridiculousness seen even on stage by some contemporary artists, remains a sad reminder that we’re not likely to get a proper release of that film any time soon.
Following the Beatles breakup, much time is devoted to the ALL THINGS MUST PASS project. The core of this section draws from the same interview that resulted in the (also) fabulous documentary THE AGONY AND ECSTASY OF PHIL SPECTOR. Sitting beside the IMAGINE sessions white piano, in between his two murder trials, Spector is engaging and prolific in his take on that period of both the late Beatles and early Harrison recordings. Later in the film we see CLASSIC ALBUMS-style footage of George behind a recording console playing off the 2″ masters of ALL THINGS, tying some of the production elements discussed by Spector with the sound of elements abandoned during the mixing phase.
The film itself, particularly for the first portion, uses an almost startling editing technique, often abruptly ending a track for an interview subject to make their (often related) point. This kind of snap cut provides a sort of jolt, and is actually quite effective in many places to make the earlier material even more engaging. The songs are given a powerful 5.1 mix (overseen by Giles Martin) and often wrap the listener in the warmth of some of the tunes, only to be brought abruptly back to subject at hand. By the time the notions of George’s spiritual life is discussed, particularly his adoption of many elements of Indian music and culture, this technique is softened to one of a more conventional editing strategy.
The film benefits greatly by widening the scope to the other areas of George’s life, including his role with the Pythons. Both Erik Idle and Terry Gilliam provide context for their working relationship with George, and tell very touching stories about their reaction after his late-in-life home invasion attack (an incident that I had completely forgotten about). Similarly, the interviews with racing legend Jackie Stewart provided a wonderful counterpoint to the other participants, and showed the rounded nature of George’s passions and influence.
If there’s minor fault with the film, it’s that it spends very little time on the several Dark Horse albums. Footage of those tours in the second half reveal a horse George, barely able to muster up a singing voice free from croaking. The inclusion at this stage of Jim Keltner to discuss that phase helped tremendously, but this section remained undercooked compared to the rest of the film. Similarly, while the Willburys era is dealt with well, the missing voice of Dylan and particularly Jeff Lynne was noticeable, and may have provided a more comprehensive look at this era.
By the time the film wraps, with Ringo having his self-described “Barbara Walters” moment, it’s obvious that Marty and his team have manged to tell not only the story of an musician, but the tale of someone who clearly and forever touched the lives of his lovers and friends in an extraordinarily deep fashion. Olivia’s talk of an aura at his death may seem mumbo jumbo, but Jackie Stewart (who admits to being no stranger to losing friends given his own occupation) seems a decade later to still be coming to terms with the loss of George. Paul and Ringo do it perhaps best, but even Clapton and Olivia make sure to point out that he wasn’t some saint, that he was both “a bag of love, and a bag of anger”, with bursts of frustration that belied the “quiet” moniker. It comes through in spades, however, that each and every participant had great love for this person independent of his musical accomplishments, making his works all that more fulfilling. While not rising to the sublime level of the NO DIRECTION doc, this is yet another fine addition to Scorsese’s music doc canon, a must see for even the most casual fan.