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Speaking for the Quiet Beatle: Olivia Harrison Discusses the George Harrison Film
September 23, 2011; by Dave Itzkoff

Photo by: Richard Perry

The four men who made up the Beatles are, to the vast majority of us, larger-than-life figures who made a tremendous and lasting impact on music, film and fashion and in numerous other arenas of popular culture. But to a select few, they are just – or are also – people: friends, siblings, parents, husbands. Among the members of that exclusive club is Olivia Harrison, who married George Harrison in 1978 and remained with him until his death in 2001. Ms. Harrison, who is the mother of Harrison’s son, Dhani, does not consider herself a celebrity and does not fully embrace the spotlight, but she has become a guardian of her husband’s legacy and of the mementos and artifacts he left behind at Friar Park, their sizable estate in Henley-on-Thames, England.
Many of these letters and recordings – along with the lives of the people behind them – are revealed in a new Martin Scorsese documentary, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” which will be shown in two parts, on Oct. 5 and 6, on HBO. It is a film for which Ms. Harrison serves as an interview subject as well as a producer, and a project with which she is still trying to get comfortable. For an article about the documentary in this Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section, Ms. Harrison spoke about the development of the project, her life with George Harrison and how she learned to share it with the cameras. These are excerpts from that conversation.

Q. How did you and Martin Scorsese first become connected on this project?

A. I went to see “No Direction Home,” which I thought was brilliant. And some production companies were approaching me to do a documentary on George’s life. And I had so many requests, eventually, I thought, someone’s going to do this. Two months after he died, somebody wanted to do it. I really didn’t want someone who didn’t know George, who wasn’t involved with the family, to take on the project. Marty was approached, and he was very interested in George and interested in his journey. Marty’s really looking for the journey and the man.


Q. Had you already started organizing George’s possessions and archives in preparation for a film?

A. I had started gathering things, but it was always after the fact. It doesn’t usually happen that way, where you have an archive and then you do a project. I mean, normal people do that. People who are on top of life, I don’t know how they manage. George had wanted to do his own anthology, from the time the Beatles had their anthology in 1995. When four people do a story, it’s “Rashomon.” He had a series of cameras from the time I met him. Movie cameras, 8-mil cameras. DVs, Hi-8s, Super VHS, U-matics. He said once, “I’m stockpiling all this material for when I’m dead,” but this was 20 years ago. He just wanted to share what he loved with people and his friends.


Q. When he would talk about his own death so matter-of-factly, was that just his morbid sarcasm?

A. There wasn’t a real divide between life and death for George. Even though, yes, he was human and he wanted to live, he didn’t see it so defined. He saw similarities in the sacred and the profane, in life and death. But it wasn’t morbid at all. He wanted to make something fun. I decided to do what I knew he would have done.


Q. So all these items of his – were you just keeping them in a vault in Friar Park?

A. No vault. Lots of drawers, cupboards, roof space, basements. Just everywhere. Always cassettes, there were a lot of cassettes around. And one of them said, “Sitar lesson.” And it was 1966 and it was his first sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar. And you hear Ravi saying, “Now, for our first lesson…” To me, that’s just fantastic.


Q. Were these items organized around the house in a deliberate way?

A. I think it was thoughtful, but at the same time, there were so many drawers and so many rooms that he would just throw things in there and that’s what would stay. Occasionally I would find something and go, “Wow, look at this, what I found in the drawer.” And he’d say [stolidly] “I know it’s there. I put it there.” And I’d say, “Oh, O.K. So that’s why it’s there.”
Very often he wouldn’t unpack a suitcase, so there’d be like a time capsule. And you’d find a local currency, and souvenirs and Polaroids. He left – and I think this came from his mother’s house – a rusty tin box, and in the box was football cards and lyrics written in a very young hand. I didn’t want to disturb any of it.


Q. Was it hard for you to part with all these personal items so that the movie could be made?

A. Now, in hindsight, I see that they were very patient with me, because I couldn’t let go of anything. The production team came over, spent a lot of time and slowly pried things from my hands. We figured out a way to transfer all the home movies. I didn’t want to send them out anywhere. It was my life. So, we did that in the house. And one of my son’s school friends, who’s become our archivist and who knew George, he was around a lot of the time and transferred all the DVs.


Q. Since George is no longer with us, do you feel you have an obligation to tell his story in his absence and to carry on his legacy?

A. Honestly, I have an overdeveloped sense of duty, I think. It’s not what I want to do. It’s not a carrot for me, at all. In fact, this film is really making me want to go hide somewhere. It’s my life. Everybody says, “George, he was such a private person, why are you doing this?” And he was, but he was out there in the world. I know that he would have done his own story. By default, I have to be the one. I’m talking to you but I’m not talking to everybody and I’m saying, no, I do not want to be on television. I’m not a celebrity.


Q. Is there a moment at which you have to overcome your desire for privacy and put yourself out there, if only for the sake of this documentary?

A. The moment you’re talking about is now. I can’t say I’m really prepared. I almost don’t want people to see it. It’s like showing everybody into your most private place. But at the same time, I think it’s important. If there’s going to be a film made about George, then the most important thing was that his essence be represented and the truth be represented, and that is what Marty has done. And I know it’s truthful because it makes me squirm. [laughs]


Q. Now that you’ve seen the documentary yourself, what do you think of it?

A. Every time I see the first part, I think, “God, it’s so much about the Beatles. Why is this about the Beatles? It’s never going to end.” And then you realize: Exactly. That’s how Marty gives you the idea of how it must have felt. You’re never going to get out of this. And I think that’s brilliant storytelling.


Q. You’re interviewed in the documentary but you’re also one of its producers. Were you telling Scorsese and his team how you wanted certain parts of the story told, or what you wanted them to stay away from?

A. No, there were questions, like, “Why are you telling this story? Why is this so important?” I don’t know the filmmaking process. The whole point of having a director and a storyteller like Marty is to let him tell the story, and I am so glad that he did. Dhani was very helpful to me in – his feeling that the dark and the light, and the good and the bad have to be told. You can’t just have nice things.


Q. You realize, of course, going into this that a Scorsese film about George Harrison will inevitably have to tell the story behind the creation of “Layla.”

A. [pretends to cover her ears] La la la la la la. [laughs] There were certain things that I know, with my life with George, did not define our lives. Now maybe it defined a certain period of time, but in hindsight, you look back at things and think, What’s the big deal? You’re 23 years old. You look at a 22-year-old, a 23-year-old, and you say, O.K., well, you’re young. Is that really who defined me in life? There are certain things that I didn’t think should be so definitive of George’s life. Same with the attack on us. I didn’t think that should be a defining moment, but in actual fact, it was something really profound came out of that, and that was the reason to talk about it.


Q. Is it important to you that history preserve George in some way? Do there need to be projects like this from time to time that remind audiences who he was?

A. No, I don’t feel people need to be reminded. I think one just hopes, as you would about anyone, that they don’t become caricatures of themselves. But when he used to be asked, how would you like to be remembered, he said, [imitates his clenched accent] “I don’t care, I don’t care if I’m remembered.” And I really think he meant that. Not in a sarcastic way, but it’s like, Why do you have to be remembered? What’s the big deal?


Q. I can’t imagine a world where people don’t know who the Beatles are, and then I see anecdotal evidence that younger generations aren’t as interested in them or don’t know who they are. Could their music ever be forgotten?

A. George’s music is there. He was a beautiful musician and he had a beautiful voice, and he had a fantastic touch on the guitar and I miss that touch. But I’m not doing it to promote him or to make him a legend, or try to make him anything. His music is there. I’m sure it goes for all musicians – how music can change someone’s life and really lead them somewhere. I think for George, he talked about the inner journey and that was very important to him, although he was yin-yang. He could hang with the best of them. [laughs] He was a scoundrel yogi. That’s what I loved about him, because he was honest. He was right up front about it. “I’m bad? O.K., I’m bad.”


Q. He certainly seems like someone who did not do anything by half-measures.

A. That’s really true. We knew a lot of racing drivers and it’s the same thing. You’re just not going to know how raucous you can get on a guitar until you crank it up to 10. So he lived life like that. He said, “I’m lucky, I’ve got a tilt mechanism.” And I used to look at him and go, “Well, your tilt mechanism goes beyond mine.” He felt he always knew when to come back, but it can be a dangerous way to live. Because he had an inner anchor and a very pronounced consciousness – not conscience, but consciousness – he knew: This was bad, I’ve got to get back. And maybe that was the Catholic guilt he was always trying to leave behind. Maybe he never did. Maybe that was the tilt mechanism, I don’t know.


Q. Through the band you’re also connected to the extended Beatle family, the band members’ spouses and children. What’s your relationship like with them?

A. They’ve been the most kind, embracing people in my life. The children, Paul’s family especially, I’m really close to them. Dhani’s close to the girls as well, and it’s an odd thing. They know what it’s like to have a dad, as a Beatle. With it comes certain baggage. They’re siblings, they understand, they get it. They roll their eyes at the same things. [laughs]


Q. With the release of the documentary, does it feel as if you’re closing a chapter in your life? Is this the last substantial thing you want to say about George?

A. This is the definitive story. It is the definitive project for me. I don’t think there’s anything more I can do. That’s one reason I tried to just open up, as much as I possibly can. You can’t do this again. Marty’s told this story. It’s a whole life from beginning to end. There isn’t anything else to be done. There’s a lot of music that was never finished, beautiful tunes, beautiful guitar riffs, just vamping over and over, that I could listen to forever. But I don’t know what one does with that. I have some other projects I want to do, and they are sort of to do with George, but not overtly.


Q. Does putting this film out there set you free? Is it a way of saying to the world, “I’ve dug deep into myself to give you this, but that entitles me to not have to keep doing it?”

A. Thank you very much for saying that. You could just say that I said that.