Sunday, May 6, 2012

George Harrison flick, CD delivers

This last week, I saw the George Harrison biopic "Living in the Material World" for the first time.

I was impressed, to say the least. Just the way it starts, with the flowers ... and George's face as he ducks behind them ... Damn. Seriously, from the beginning, the movie forces you to pay attention.

The movie isn't exactly linear, though it does follow a loose timeline. It jumps back and forth between eras, but the story progresses. I don't really know how to explain it, other than that the approach keeps the story fresh and also saves the film from becoming an "I already know all that Beatles stuff" casualty.

In fact, there's so much footage and fresh interview material from people involved throughout The Beatles' history that even the stuff that is already well known remains engaging. Content from Klaus Voorman, Astrid Kirchherr and dozens of others really paint a deep picture of a man who was more than a hippy guru or sharp-tongued curmudgeon. His sense of humor, spirituality, compassion, stubbornness and commitment to his beliefs (whether they are religious, musical or social) really come to life.

But beyond all of this is the music.

The soundtrack to the film (and the accompanying disc) rests heavily on the classic "All Things Must Pass" album. The album, "Early Takes Volume 1," is compiled of demos and early takes that have never been officially released. The majority of tracks (six of the 10) are from "All Things Must Pass," with some interesting tidbits along the way.

The music itself is really cool, even for demo / early take material.

What strikes me is the freshness and clarity of the material. From the beginning, it's apparent that George really worked on his material before committing anything to tape. The demo for "My Sweet Lord" rings out, even without the multitracked guitars and Wall of Sound Phil Spector production. The "All Things Must Pass" early take has a beauty that rivals the early version included on "The Beatles Anthology 3" compilation. And the inclusion of "Let It Be Me" is the jewel of the set ... When I heard it being played on the video, I sat up and said, "What's that? I don't recognize that song from any of his albums."

"Let It Be Me" has been covered by dozens of artists, with several different track names. The Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley notably did versions of the track, which no doubt influenced George's interest in the song. George's performance carries all his emotional investment and some terrific vocal and guitar work, besides.

I also really enjoyed listening to George take on Bob Dylan's "Mama You've Been On My Mind." I know George and Bob were friends and bandmates, and certainly bootlegs have gone out of their way to stress that the two did more music together than has seen the official light of day. But to hear George take on this Dylan chestnut is pretty eye-opening ... It may be one of my favorite performances of the song, to date.

Song after song, the disc offers really good performances of fantastic songs that really rest on the strength of George's voice and of the musicianship involved. Without the Spector production and all the overdubs, the dignity and power of the material is still present. I don't hate the Spector production, don't get me wrong ... It's just that the great music stands without the ornament. This disc is a must-have if simply for demonstrating that.

Now, one does wonder why there are only 10 tracks on the disc. Most CDs can hold about 80 minutes of material. And for such a biographical project, there's almost a mandate for a multi-disc release to really give fans the goods. Certainly, the material that exists (studio, demo, alternate takes, live) warrants more than a single-disc release. With the "Volume 1" designation to the album, there must be some talk about doing more vault releases. I hope we'll see more than 10-track discs, however ... At 30 minutes or so, "Volume 1" leaves the listener craving more.

If there is any criticism I can really level at the movie (and the one disc of music released so far), it's that big chunks of the Harrison catalog are largely ignored. There's basically nothing discussed from "Extra Texture" through "Cloud 9," other than a bit played from "Woman Don't You Cry for Me" (from the "33 1/3" album). Nothing is said about "All Those Years Ago," and the Eighties are discussed really only to bring up The Traveling Wilburys. Of course, The Wilburys are awesome and I'm glad they were noted. But the truly great self-titled album warranted mentioning. Songs like "Crackerbox Palace," "Here Comes The Moon," "You," "This Song," "Blow Away," "Love Comes to Everyone," "That's The Way It Goes," and most of the songs on "Cloud 9" really deserved some mention.

And sure, it would have been worthwhile discussing the "Shanghai Surprise" bomb and how it affected Harrison's film business. Getting footage from George working with Paul Simon for the "Saturday Night Live" appearance would have been cool. And getting more about The Rutles projects and George's involvement would have been fun. I'm surprised there isn't more from Jeff Lynne. I'm even more surprised that Bob Dylan doesn't appear at all (I guess he didn't want to be?). But even in a 4-hour movie project, I guess sacrifices had to be made.

The film manages to show the very real, very human former Beatle in ways that highlight what was already known about him ... to an extent that makes it more than a glossy generalization. He WAS spiritual. He WAS funny. He WAS a bit of a grouch. He WAS a good guitarist and songwriter.

I think the film will make new fans, and it certainly renewed my interest in the man's work. After watching almost four hours of film, I grabbed some of his albums and started listening anew. The film never gets tedious, the music is almost always used to highlight the content without becoming a series of music videos. Martin Scorsese did a great job of finding the man in all the frenzy, and behind all the music.

And the CD, short though it may be, highlights the artist that George WAS ... An aspect that gets overlooked all too often. He did good work, and this project really gives him his due. It's about time.

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