Guest Blogger: Ray Morton, author of A Hard Day’s Night: Music on Film
To commemorate George Harrison’s birthday on February 25 (and because I write a lot about movies), I thought it would be fun to take a look at “the quiet Beatle’s” long and fascinating relationship with the cinema.
Harrison’s first participation in the movies was his work on The Beatles’s debut film, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night. In the film, a fictionalized documentary about a “typical” day in the extraordinary life of the Fab Four at the height of Beatlemania, Harrison played a simplified version of himself and greatly impressed director Richard Lester with the quiet force of his acting, especially in the stellar scene in which Harrison befuddles a condescending television producer: “[George] never attempted to do too much or too little but everything he did was spot on.”
In addition to acting in the film, Harrison also contributed to the film’s soundtrack, playing guitar of all of the original songs written (by John Lennon and Paul McCartney): “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her,” “Tell Me Why,” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” on which he also sang the lead vocal. He also wrote and sang “Don’t Bother Me,” a previously released single that was used as background music in the picture. A Hard Day’s Night also had a profound effect on Harrison’s personal life – during the first week of shooting he met Patti Boyd, a model who was cast in a small role in the movie (playing a schoolgirl who flirts with Paul). Harrison and Boyd began dating shortly afterwards and she eventually became his first wife.
Harrison’s next cinematic foray was in the sequel to A Hard Day’s Night, 1965’s Help!, where he once again played “George” in a surreal romp that found the Beatles tangling with the members of an eastern cult, a wily femme fatale, some stuffy government officials, and a couple of mad scientists. Harrison wrote and sang the lead on “I Need You,” an original song written for the film and played guitar on the original Lennon/McCartney songs written for the movie: “Help!,” “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Ticket to Ride,” “The Night Before,” and “Another Girl.” Like A Hard Day’s Night, Help! had a significant impact on Harrison’s personal life. During the filming of a scene set in an Indian restaurant, Harrison became friendly with several Indian musicians that appeared in the scene. This led to the interest in Indian music and eventually to the Indian spiritual beliefs that influenced Harrison’s work and life for the rest of his life.
Harrison participated in all of the other Beatles film projects, including promotional films (the precursors of modern music videos) for some of the band’s songs, 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour (in which he acted, played music, and co-wrote the instrumental song “Flying”), 1968’s animated Yellow Submarine (writing and singing the lead on “It’s All Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song” and making a cameo appearance along with the other Beatles in the film’s live action coda), and the 1970 documentary Let It Be, in which Harrison is seen having a testy exchange with Paul McCartney that actually resulted in the guitarist quitting (off screen) the band for several days.
Following the break-up of the Beatles in 1970, Harrison’s next motion picture project was 1972’s The Concert for Bangladesh, a documentary about the benefit show Harrison produced at Madison Square Garden in 1971 to benefit the victims of the Bangladesh Liberation War. Harrison produced the film and appeared as one of the performers.
Later in the 1970s, Harrison became friends with comedian Eric Idle, a member of the Monty Python troupe (Harrison appeared as himself in Idle’s riotous Beatles spoof mocumentary The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash). When the backers of the Pythons’ religious satire The Life of Brian pulled out, Harrison agreed to finance the making of the film himself. His stated reason for investing in the project was that he wanted to see the movie and knew if he didn’t bankroll the movie, he’d never get the chance, which led Idle to quip that Harrison had just purchased the “world’s most expensive cinema ticket.” To produce the film (in which Harrison also made a cameo appearance as Mr. Papadopolous), Harrison and his business manager Denis O’Brien formed a company called Handmade Films. Originally, the company was only meant to finance Brian, but following that film’s tremendous box office success, Harrison and O’Brien decided to make it an ongoing concern. The company went on to become one of the most significant and successful production companies of the 1980s, generating a number of popular classics, including The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, and Withnail & I before dissolving in 1994.
Apart from his producing work, Harrison also contributed songs to two movie soundtracks in the 1980s: he did a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “I Don’t Want to Do It” for 1985’s Porky’s Revenge and co-wrote (with Tom Petty), co-produced (with Jeff Lynne), played guitar, and sang the lead on “Cheer Down” for 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2.
Movies lost a great friend when Harrison passed away in 2001. His contributions to pop music are legendary and will live forever. Thanks to the permanency of film, so will his contributions to cinema.
Happy Birthday, George!
A Hard Day’s Night: Music on Film by Ray Morton is the story of the making of the greatest rock-and-roll movie of all time. Beginning with introductions to the film’s stars – chronicling their rise from a raggedy teenage skiffle band to the biggest pop act in the world – the book goes on to tell how the American film company United Artists wanted to make a quick, low-budget movie starring the Fab Four so its record division could put out a motion picture soundtrack album full of new Beatles songs, in order to allow the studio to cash in on the incredible wave of Beatlemania then sweeping the planet. Director Richard Lester, producer Walter Shenson, and screenwriter Alun Owen were hired to churn out just another cheap exploitation film, but instead used the opportunity to create a startlingly fresh and original movie that broke new ground both in subject matter (instead of simply following genre tradition and sticking the band in some corny made-up plot, they had the Beatles play themselves in a narrative based on their own incredible real-life experiences) and in form (Lester’s inspired, surrealist approach to the film’s musical numbers kicked off the entire music video revolution). Covered is the film’s frantic six-week shoot, the lively recording sessions that resulted in seven great new Beatles songs, and how both the film and the album met with great critical and popular success.