Thursday, October 2, 2003

Seeing “Concert for George” so soon after taking in “Paul McCartney in Red Square” was a stroke of luck; it was like Pepto for heartburn.

Not that Mr. McCartney’s concert movie from Moscow was bad. Far from it. He’s got a hot young band, and their performance in Red Square was nothing short of triumphant, a long-withheld gift to Russians who were cheated out of their Beatlemaniac youths.

But the documentary, which aired recently on the A&E cable network, all but credited Mr. McCartney with knocking down the Berlin Wall and defeating communism.

The Beatles were demigods, yes; they were a hugely important cultural-global force. But a little perspective, please.

Then there’s the late George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle.” A modest guy, he liked nothing more than tending to his English garden, so he shrank from the limelight that Mr. McCartney and his new wife, Heather Mills, seem to crave.

“Concert for George,” filmed at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Nov. 29, 2002, the first anniversary of his death from throat cancer, is a fitting, moving tribute to a gentle soul — and a great songwriter, as if you needed reminding.

Directed by David Leland in sparkling high-definition video with crisp and punchy surround sound, “George” is a celebration of Mr. Harrison’s entire body of songs, from such early Beatles songs as “I Want to Tell You” to mid-period solo material such as “My Sweet Lord” to later work with the Traveling Wilburys.

An impressive troupe of Mr. Harrison’s best pals — including Jeff Lynne, Billy Preston, Joe Brown, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Ravi Shankar and former Beatles Ringo Starr and Mr. McCartney — were gathered for the concert, with Eric Clapton as the maestro.

Mr. Harrison’s son, Dhani, also performs on guitar, looking spookily like a twentysomething version of his father.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the original recording of which featured Mr. Clapton, is a stunning rendition. And with Mr. Starr on drums and Mr. McCartney on piano, it’s probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a Beatles reunion.

Ditto for “Something,” arguably Mr. Harrison’s finest composition, which Mr. McCartney assays on ukulele, an instrument the late guitarist cherished.

It’s improbably brilliant and sweet, but the supergroup of musicians picks up midway through, giving the song the full treatment it deserved.

Mr. Preston, who played keyboards on “Get Back,” and Mr. Clapton turn in a superbly heartfelt rendition of “Isn’t It a Pity,” while the Heartbreakers offer a gritty “Taxman.”

Along with his daughter Anoushka, Mr. Shankar — Mr. Harrison’s sitar mentor — conducts an orchestra of Indian and English musicians for a detour called “Arpan,” which, given the late guitarist’s long-held Eastern spiritual values and love of Indian music, was probably a necessary excursion.

“George” is brought back to earth with an irreverent pair of tunes sung by none other than the old boys from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (plus a certain movie-star guest, but I won’t spoil the surprise).

The Python chorale, including Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, bellows its way through “The Lumberjack Song” and a piece whose name can’t be printed in a family newspaper.

What are they doing in a tribute to George Harrison? He was a huge fan and, it’s been remarked, he half-seriously thought the spirit of the Beatles passed into Monty Python when the band broke up.

It speaks highly of the tribute organizers that they saw fit to inject that kind of irreverent humor into such a solemn occasion. But there it is — and there are Pythonites, dressed as Canadian Mounties, mooning their crusty old rear ends in Royal Albert Hall.

Mr. Harrison wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Or would he have?

During a break from rehearsals, Mr. Clapton admits to being uncertain about the whole project, about whether Mr. Harrison would’ve welcomed such attention.

“I needed to do it for myself,” the guitarist says, frankly.

Mr. Clapton deserves our gratitude then, because when a concert’s this good, we need it for ourselves, too.

Coming full circle, the Russians needed, and deserved, Paul McCartney, who, it should be said, is nothing but a class act in “Concert for George.”

There. Everyone’s happy.


TITLE: “Concert for George”

RATING: PG-13 (Risque humor and brief nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by David Leland.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes, playing at AMC Hoffman 22 in Alexandria and Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue Cinemas in the District.


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