Review: ‘Concert for George’

Well-structured docu captures the moving tribute to George Harrison held at Royal Albert Hall a year to the day after his untimely demise. With a focus that owes much to the firm hand of Eric Clapton, organizer, musical director and guiding light of the concert, film gathers together only those who knew, loved and made music with "the quiet Beatle."

Well-structured docu captures the moving tribute to George Harrison held at Royal Albert Hall a year to the day after his untimely demise. With a focus and dedication that owes much to the firm hand of Eric Clapton, organizer, musical director and guiding light of the concert, film gathers together only those who knew, loved and made music with “the quiet Beatle.” Pic’s limited theatrical run precedes release of 2-DVD set skedded for Nov. 17, which will comprise both the concert in its entirety and the edited film.

Playing in near-flawless harmony, an ungainly bunch of musicians crowd the huge stage: graying rock ‘n’ rollers, Indian singers, dancers, flute players and drummers along side orchestral string sections. Central virtually throughout is Harrison’s son Dhani, an eerie clone of George and a guitar-strumming visual reminder of him, along with the huge photographs of Harrison suspended above.

With the exception of the inexplicably absent Bob Dylan, most of Harrison’s bygone musical collaborators are well represented. Foremost among them, longtime friend and one-time rival Clapton covers many Harrison standards as does Harrison’s fellow-“Traveling Wilbury” Jeff Lynne on guitar and vocals. The other surviving “Wilbury” Tom Petty (along with his Heartbreakers) essays “Taxman” and “I Need You,” while keyboardist Billy Preston swings into “My Sweet Lord.”

Clever policy of limiting guest-list exclusively to former friends pays off beautifully: Memories of Harrison’s ritual pilgrimages to India are evoked by the mere presence of musical guru Ravi Shankar, who dedicates a new piece to his beloved student. Performances by Joe Brown, whose band the Beatles opened for decades ago, bracket the concert. Even helmer David Leland claims a personal connection, as Harrison exec-produced “Mona Lisa,” which Leland scripted.

One curious affect of concert’s fidelity to Harrison’s musical scene is the comparative absence of women. The only featured female artists are the offspring of legendary Harrison pals Shankar, whose daughter Anoushka conducts her father’s composition and ably accompanies Clapton on sitar, and Joe Brown, whose daughter Sam sizzles with a hot rendition of “Horse to the Water.”

A reunited “Monty Python” bunch, with whom Harrison had a historic association as both aficionado and producer, supplies enjoyable comic relief (one number including an obviously thrilled Tom Hanks amidst its lumberjack chorus).

The amazing backup band, boasting Albert Lee, Andy Fairweather Low and Marc Mann on guitar, Jim Kelner and Jim Capaldi on drums, Gary Brooker on keyboards, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Tom Scott on sax, are curiously never identified. Only those who need no introduction, such as fellow “Fab Four” members Paul and Ringo, are formally introduced.

Ex-moptop Ringo strides in theatrically with a now poignantly elegiac “Photograph,” which he co-wrote with George. McCartney’s appearance is postponed until almost halfway through the proceedings.

Clapton’s tribute is less a “We Are the World”-type collective sing-along than a carefully orchestrated succession of sampled Harrison tunes which slowly crescendo to a climax. Similarly, beneath pic’s seeming spontaneity, helmer Leland has cannily edited docu to dovetail with concert’s dynamics. Thus, early numbers are either fairly simply presented or else interrupted by backstage rehearsal segments and brief snatches of interviews. But these interspersed snippets become steadily less frequent as event gains momentum.

The musical “break” that signals film’s move into high gear comes during McCartney’s bare-bones interpretation of “Something,” which starts with deliberately simple ukulele self-accompaniment, but then is picked up on by Clapton’s guitar and next subtly built up and elegantly rounded out by the entire assemblage in a complex arrangement all the more thrilling for the relative austerity of what came before. Near the finish, Clapton and McCartney create dramatic audio/visual, guitar/piano counterpoint in an electrifying “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Concert ends in a storm of flower petals.

Lensing by the estimable Chris Menges is full and rich, capturing both the scope and the intimacy of the event. The 5.1 Surroundsound does full justice to the occasion, and all tech credits are tops.

Concert for George

U.K.-U.S.

Production

A Warner Music Group presentation of a radical.media production. Produced by Ray Cooper, Olivia Harrison, Jon Kamen. Executive producers, Harrison, Brian Roylance. Directed by David Leland.

Crew

Camera (color, HDV), Chris Menges; editor, Claire Ferguson; musical director, Eric Clapton; concert audio producer, Jeff Lynne; associate producers, Craig Fruin, Frank Scherma. Reviewed at the Loews 19th Street, New York, Oct. 7, 2003. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Joe Brown, Eric Clapton, Jools Holland, Sam Brown, Jeff Lynne, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, Olivia Harrison, Dhani Harrison, many others.

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