My sweet lords
“How many Beatles does it take to change a light bulb?”
George Harrison is infectiously pleased with himself as he asks that question, a scene we see during Martin Scorsese’s indulgently long 2011 documentary, Living In The Material World (streaming on Netflix). Harrison, the youngest member of the band, proves a superb prism through which to view The Beatles and their absurdly meteoric rise. Scorsese shuffles through file footage, talking heads and photos—those lovely, endlessly watchable black and white photographs dripping with charm—in non-linear and relaxed fashion, fleshing out details we always thought we knew but never knew quite enough. The film is ostensibly about Harrison, but as he says to go with his cleverly conceived question, the Beatles become the Beatles only when all of them come together. The answer is always four.
When the band played in Hamburg—“the naughtiest city in the world”, says Harrison, who was 17 at the time—they camped in squalour, living behind the screen of a movie theatre that projected porn films, emerging only at night to shake things up with their unformed but unheralded sounds. Contrast this, if you will, with their first visit to the US, after they had conquered Britain and their queues outnumbered churchgoers. The year was 1964. John Lennon and Ringo Starr were 24, Paul McCartney was 22, George Harrison was 21 and these four boys had come to New York and been given an entire floor of the famed Plaza Hotel.
Naturally, they didn’t know what to do with it. The gang ended up huddled in one bathroom, bonded by intimacy and disbelief. It was a rare night of quiet in a surreal life where these young geniuses shaved on aeroplanes and slept under flashbulbs. There is an exquisite shot of McCartney, cherub-faced and irresistible, shushing the crowd in order to talk to them. The shrieks are endless and shrill and full of love of unprecedented decibels, and here’s McCartney, finger on his lips, trying to contain the uncontainable. “The Beatles had one day off a month,” chuckles Ringo Starr, recalling a pithy quote of the time, “and on that day Paul would judge a beauty pageant.”
Weddings in Liverpool are known for drunken hooliganism and punch-ups. Our boys started out playing at Harrison’s brother’s wedding, and they had their work cut out. There was a local piano player playing rousing renditions of popular songs, getting the crowd to sing lustily along and enjoy much off-key merriment, and this would normally be a tough act to follow. Except for Lennon, who came up behind the boisterous pianist and poured a pint of beer on her head while saying “I anoint thee, David”. The scene was so utterly impossible that the piano player gamely walked off and dried herself while the boys stormed the stage and started playing. No fight broke out.
The documentary uses music and interviewees anachronistically, playing Harrison’s 1970 song Beware Of Darkness—with the gorgeous line beware of falling swingers—alongside pictures of the boys at their youngest, raw and rebellious and easily, wilfully enchanted by artistic girls who wore leather. The film opens with Eric Clapton (who once stole Harrison’s wife), moves on to Terry Gilliam (who directed Monty Python films produced by Harrison) and cuts to Harrison’s son Dhani, who looks uncannily like his father in the clip, and says that if he’d see his father today, he’d ask, simply, “Where have you been?”
The George Harrison smirk is a wondrous thing, daring both the person behind the camera and the one seeing the photograph to guess what he’s thinking. He has the secret, and it is ours but to wonder why. Scorsese lovingly tries to wheedle his way towards the truth in this film, and over the film’s 208-minute running time, he manages to find some answers while gaining several new questions. Harrison was the cool Beatle, the one who found equanimity and calm, and while all things must indeed pass, some mysteries need always remain.
“Krishna, Krishna, Krishna” are the first things we hear Harrison actually say in the film, as he signs a contract after being herded into a room, signing his name warily and hurriedly. “May the lord help this to become final.”
“He had a great haircut,” says McCartney about Harrison , eyebrows raised. “He had this long hair that he coiffed back...a great big marvellous thing.” This is true, and photographs of an early Harrison show a young boy with mad hair. It is enormous, angry, Johnny Bravo meets Johnny Cash hair, tall and upright like the former but curled back like the latter, and over the years—through mop-tops and maturity—it turned into a simple, sleek mane, a fine accompaniment to his moustache. It is quite the pleasure to watch older Harrison laugh at clips of younger Harrison, and even better to have him sing along.
One of the most brilliant things about The Beatles is the way they magnificently completed each other’s jokes. One would say something clever, the other would immediately and impulsively take it to another level, and the laugh would be rendered unforgettable. They were meant to click together, and as we have all seen them come up with zingers and break into appreciative laughs at one another at press conferences, it’s no surprise that Scorsese’s film is the same. At one point, McCartney describes the “pre-fame” days as Dickensian. “It was a Dickensian time. School was very Dickensian,” he says, thoughtfully. “It was an old, old place. In fact, Dickens had taught there... That’s how Dickensian it was.”
It is a film about Harrison, but McCartney steals it. That’s what they mean by getting by with a little help from your friends.
Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
He tweets at @rajasen