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CONCERT FOR GEORGE (2002) review

February 26, 2018

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produced by: Ray Cooper and Joe Kamen
directed by: David Leland
rated: PG-13 (for some risqué humor) 
runtime: 146 min.
U.S. release date: October 3, 2003 and February 20, 2018 (rerelease) 

 

February 25th this year would’ve been the 75th birthday of George Harrison, often referred to as “the quiet Beatle” one of the reasons he was my favorite Beatle. He may not have been the most vocal of the Fab Four, but he certainly wound up being the most interesting. Sure, the works of Lennon/McCartney will always stand the test of time, but Harrison’s songs with the band, like “If I Needed Someone”, “Taxman”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” (the second most covered Beatles song), add a distinctive variety to the band’s canon. Harrison died too soon, on November 29th, 2001 in Los Angeles at the age of 58, succumbing to lung cancer. On the first anniversary of his death, an all-star tribute concert was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, as a memorial for the artist and “Concert for George” presents songs from that night.

Directed by David Leland, “Concert for George” compiles footage from that event and while it doesn’t include the entire concert, it does a fine job at providing the motivation for the concert, as well as inserting some key footage of practice sessions and interview snippets from some of the performers involved.

The concert was organized by Harrison’s widow, Olivia, and their son, Dhani (himself a musician, who plays in the evening’s house band, dubbed George’s Band), and arranged under the musical direction of Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne (Harrison’s fellow Traveling Wilbury co-hort). The proceeds of the evening would go to the charitable organization Harrison founded, the Material World Foundation, which donated to various causes, promoting diverse artistic endeavours and philosophies. The title of the concert plays off Harrison’s famous “The Concert for Bangladesh”, which was itself a pioneering charity event the Liverpool artist put together to provide aid to the homeless Bengali refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War, itself set the model for future multi-artist rock benefits such as Live Aid in 1985 to provide African relief and the Concert for New York City in 2001 after 9/11.

 

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The draw of the concert is indeed the contribution of the artists who came together to perform that evening. Most of the evening featured the musicians who made up George’s Band, such of Clapton, Lynne and Dhani Harrison (who has an uncanny resemblance to his father) and the likes of Jools Holland, Albert Lee, Sam Brown, Gary Brooker, Joe Brown, Ray Cooper, Jim Keltner, Andy Fairweather-Low, Marc Mann, Dave Bronze, Klaus Voormann, as well as two great artists who are no longer with us, Tom Petty and Billy Preston. Petty and the Heartbreakers played “Taxman” in which guitarist Mike Campbell shredded a solo and then fittingly lead the band in “Handle with Care”, a song from The Traveling Wilburys and Leland includes a backstage clip of Petty reflecting on how Harrison formed the supergroup in the late 1980s. It’s ironic to hear Preston play “Isn’t It a Pity” with Clapton, since it’s hard not to think about how one of the great Hammond organ players is no longer with us as well.

Most of the songs featured in “Concert for George” are Harrison’s, from both Beatles and post-Beatles eras, generally staying faithful to Harrison’s original arrangements. The film opens with Clapton and the band playing “If I Needed Someone” and “Beware of Darkness”. In between these songs, Leland cuts away to Clapton sharing why he’s participating in the concert – not just because he knew Harrison since they were kids, but as a way to grieve the loss of his friend.

There’s a bit of a comedic interlude when some of the surviving members of the Monty Python troupe (minus John Cleese) appear on stage, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, along with Python contributor Neil Innes, to perform “Sit on My Face”. Michael Palin then comes out in a sparkling gold tux as an over-the-top announcer who eventually states that he only ever wanted to be a lumberjack. He was then joined by the Pythons, Innes, Carol Cleveland and actor Tom Hanks and The Fred Tomlinson Singers to perform “The Lumberjack Song”. It’s met with a rousing applause and anyone wondering why they were included in a night celebrating Harrion’s songs should be assuaded when they hear from Gilliam that Harrison always felt that the spirit of The Beatles was transferred into Monty Python after the band broke up.

 

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The concert is also significant in that it marked the first time Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr had played together since The Beatles broke up. Starr took lead and sang “Photograph”, a song from his first solo album, which Harrison contributed on. He followed that with “Honey Don’t”, a Carl Perkins tune Harrison always liked. McCartney opened “Something” in a unique manner with with a solo ukulele accompaniment which then shifted into a full band version featuring Clapton. Preston takes lead on “My Sweet Lord” and joins McCartney, Clapton and Starr on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

In honor of Harrison’s incorporation of Indian instrumentation and Hindu-aligned spirituality, there is a strong presence of Eastern music. We see Anoushka Shankar (daughter of Harrison’s mentor, Ravi Shankar, who is also on stage, yet died in 2012) and Jeff Lynne performed “The Inner Light”, followed by a Ravi Shankar composition “Arpan” (Sanskrit for ‘to give’), specially written for the occasion.

English musician Joe Brown closed the show with a touching rendition of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (one of the few non-Harrison songs) on ukulele, one of Harrison’s favorite instruments, and is joined by every performer who previously took the stage.

Leland likely got this directing gig from working with Harrison in the past. He directed a comedy starring Jeff Daniels called “Checking Out” that flopped in 1989, which was co-produced by Harrison and Denis O’Brien, both of whom founded the film production company Handmade Films. That company financed “Monty Python’s The Life of Brian” as well as “Long Good Friday”, “Time Bandits”, “Withnail and I” and the Sean Penn/Madonna flop, “Shanghai Surprise”, which Harrison had a cameo in and composed the soundtrack to with the late Michael Kamen, who served as an orchestral conductor for this concert.

Leland shot the film using discreet cameras from over twelve locations and throughout the film, cinematographer Chris Mendes (a frequent collaborator to filmmakers Ken Loach, Bill Forsyth, Neil Jordan and Stephen Daldry) makes the most of this approach, adding to the film’s versatile viewpoints.

“Concert for George” is one of the most beautifully heartfelt concerts in recent memory and is a fitting memorial to a man who quietly changed the course of pop music.  In no way is it the best concert film out there, but it does indeed serve as a fitting and heartfelt celebration of Harrison’s considerable career.

Starting on February 20th and running in select theaters for the next couple weeks, the film gets a revisit to the big-screen here in the States. Here’s a list of the theaters “Concert for George” will play. 

 

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RATING: ***

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