Perhaps I should tell you this before we go any further; in the age-old John vs. Paul debate, my answer is George, and as the years go by that conviction only grows stronger in me. It’s not just the music, it’s about how George lived his life. Nearly ten years on, his death still haunts me.
Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. The Last Waltz. Many people consider these films to be among the greatest rock and roll films of all time. I share their admiration. In the last few years though, I have come to believe that the Concert For George is the best concert film ever made.
The Concert For George achieves this lofty place in my personal pantheon as a result of a perfect storm of elements. There is the beautiful venue, London’s Royal Albert Hall. Then there is an exceptional cast of musicians led by Eric Clapton, and including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Billy Preston, Jim Keltner, Anoushka Shankar, Jools Holland, Gary Brooker, Albert Lee, and Joe Brown. But what really makes the film great is the music of George Harrison, and the deep love and emotion with which the assembled cast performs it.
The film begins with a simple inscription:
“November 29, 2002
One year to the day”
The first portion of the show features Anoushka Shankar conducting an orchestra of Indian musicians in a beautiful, exotic performance of “Your Eyes,” as her father Ravi Shankar watches with pride from his seat on the stage. Then Jeff Lynne joins this group for a lovely performance of “The Inner Light.”
Things go from sublime to wonderfully ridiculous with the appearance of the Monty Python troupe. They perform two of their biggest musical hits, “Lumberjack,” and “Sit On My Face,” before exiting the stage with their best sides showing.
Then it’s time for the rock and roll portion of the evening, and the all-star cast provides one memorable performance after another. It’s a big band, and the musicians create a wall of sound that would make All Things Must Pass producer Phil Spector proud. Dhani Harrison, who looks very much like his father at a young age, is onstage playing guitar throughout. Dressed in white, his spectral presence provides the illusion that George himself is somehow there, but watching from a distance. It is a stunning thing to see.
The musical highlights include moments that will make you smile, and others that will make your heart hurt and tears fill your eyes. Tell me how anyone who knows anything about the history of the Beatles can keep from choking up when Paul McCartney delivers a powerful version of “All Things Must Pass.” The late Billy Preston provides a powerful version of “Isn’t It A Pity,” and Eric Clapton, outstanding throughout, presents a stunning, passionate take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” When Joe Brown closes the proceedings with the lovely “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” it is nearly impossible not to be moved.
I love my DVD copy of The Concert For George, and the new Blu-ray from Rhino ups the ante considerably. I am no expert in these things, but even I can tell that the quality of the transfer is superb. To put it simply, it all looks, and sounds, magnificent.
The two-disc set includes the full concert on one disc, and the theatrical version of the film, together with extras, on the other. For the most part the extras were ported over from the DVD release. They provide a behind-the-scenes look at various aspects of the concert. I didn’t find them particularly special. There is also a well made booklet that includes some very nice photos, and a stirring essay from Paul Theroux. But it is the concert itself that provides the real magic.
So, with a beautiful setting, world-class musicians, undeniable music presented with love and affection, and beautiful sights and sounds — how can you go wrong? The Concert For George should be in your Blu-ray library.
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