If Not For You: How George Harrison helped to make films he believed in

Besides his discography with the Beatles and fruitful solo career, there’s a connection to films that fewer fans of George Harrison know about. In the eighties, the musician swung into film producing, all because of one film he wanted to see that wouldn’t get made without his support.

george harrison film producer
Eric Idle and George Harrison on the set of Life of Brian. Source: Twitter

You could name a few George Harrison’s songs which have adorned a couple of film soundtracks in the past year. My Sweet Lord was one of the choices for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wah-Wah played over the final scene of American Made, Molly’s Game featured his Blow Away and Battle of the Sexes made use of What Is Life. But the Scouse musician’s connection to the cinema goes far beyond his ability to compose.

In one of his interviews at the beginning of their careers at Ready Steady Go!, a popular music TV programme of the Sixties, he mentioned film-watching as one of the band’s pastimes. He admitted to being a fan of James Bond, and named Margaret Rutheford as one of his favourite actresses. For that, he got a massive fit of laughter from the crowd, maybe because the young audience in the studio wouldn’t think of her as his first choice when Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor reigned the big screen. However, it’s necessary to remember that Rutheford was one of the prominent, popular British film stars way back before George was a moviegoing adolescent.

He starred in a few films himself. With the band, he acted in A Hard Day’s Night, a hilarious musical depicting lads on tour at the height of Beatlemania, followed by fictionalised Help! – both directed by Richard Lester. The first title, shot in black and white, was tightly packed with the songs from the album released under the same title and supported by a whole lot of Scouse humour. The latter, albeit less critically acclaimed at the time than its predecessor, was marked as one of the milestones for music videos.

Later on, he appeared in another group effort Magical Mystery Tour – a psychedelic, insane journey that the band took their fans on. Their animation Yellow Submarine that followed is said to have rekindled interest in animation for the older audiences (it’s scheduled to appear at Picturehouse Cinemas for its anniversary). And when it comes to music for films, he didn’t provide it solely for his band’s creative endeavours. While still with the Beatles, he took on a solo project to compose a soundtrack for a 1968 film Wonderwall, starring Jane Birkin and JackMacGowran.

But his support for cinema and engagement in film production has shown when he put the funds forward for the third Monty Python film. Their relationship was, in fact, much longer: the musician confirmed his admiration for the group as early as 1971 in one of the promo interviews for All Things Must Pass. The comedy group had parodied The Beatles as The Rutles before, and George had the chance to catch up with them when he attended the screening of The Holy Grail. The Quiet Beatle was sceptical of rock-and-roll fame, had a dark sense of humour and wasn’t afraid to poke jokes at himself, so it’s not difficult to understand where his admiration for the Pythons came from.

When EMI withdrew their backing for the project last minute, George decided he’d figure out how to support them. In 1978, he mortgaged his own house to back the project he believed in. He founded a production company HandMade Films to support the comedy troupe in making Life of Brian. Eric Idle said that the foundation of the company was the most expensive cinema ticket in history. George got a cameo in the movie as an initial reward, but as he mentioned in one of the interviews, he pulled all the strings purely because he wanted the Monty Python’s newest project to come alive.

The film turned out to be a massive success. The BFI has named The Life of Brian the 28th most important film in British cinema. Its influence on comedy holds steadily until this very day: in 2011, in Time Out’s poll, its legacy allowed it to get the title of the third best comedy that was ever made. However, the film’s unconventional treatment of a story alluding to New Testament sparked controversy for being “blasphemous”. Several councils in the UK blocked the local release of the film, and because it ended up 18-rated, it was tougher to be distributed. It was banned for eight years in Ireland, and for a year in Norway. But that didn’t stop the company from poking fun at the backlash either: in Sweden, the film was marketed under a slogan, “so funny it was banned in Norway!”.

The next HandMade project was The Long Good Friday, which premiered at the London Film Festival in 1980. Starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, the gangster flick’s grit and glamour earned it the 21st spot on the aforementioned BFI ranking. The movie tackles multiple issues concerning public opinion in the late 70s as it unpacks the story of a gangster paying his dues to the American mob in the capital. Interestingly, its understanding of the times it was made in grounded its universality. It also predicted the future in a longer run, for instance when it comes to redevelopment of London. James-Bond-to-be Pierce Brosnan briefly appears, too, which marks his first ever performance on the silver screen.

It wasn’t the last project with Hoskins that George greenlighted. Mona Lisa, an acclaimed neo-noir about a convicted gangster turning into a call girl’s bodyguard, brought the actor an award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination as well as a Golden Globe win and a BAFTA award. Michael Caine appears in this film, too, throwing himself into the depiction of seductive glamour and fictionalised darkness of his hometown.

One of the film projects put HandMade Films in serious financial trouble, tanking at the box office. Released in 1986, Shanghai Surprise paired an off-screen couple Sean Penn and Madonna, who unite to get their hands on the opium supply by navigating the murky world of crime. Harrison briefly appeared in the film and recorded a few songs for the soundtrack. Shanghai Surprise, Zig Zag and The Hottest Gong in Town have been released as bonus songs on his albums later on.

The film’s underperformance forced its distribution company MGM to cut down its marketing money. That ultimately cut off the life support for the movie’s feeble audience attention. Besides staggeringly bad reviews (it was referred to as Flop Suey by the critics), it landed a handful of Razzie nominations, getting the singer her first worst actress award. The investment of $17 million was rewarded with only $2 million in box office sales, impacting the stability of the production company.

But George’s indie filmmaking business lived on. Soon, HandMade got a chance to redeem itself after its boss picked up on a fresh script. He became an executive producer for Withnail and I that managed to bring a little box office glory back to his firm in 1987. Depicting shenanigans of two unemployed actors in London as the Swinging Sixties decade is about to close, a low-budget feature became one of the comedy classics. Bill Nighy, Daniel Day-Lewis and Kenneth Branagh were all considered for the title role (and Day-Lewis rejected it eventually), but it was Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann and Richard Griffiths who got to create the cult characters. “We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees,” a film quote concludes the era – but the film turned out to be precious for more than just one decade’s youth. Again, the production was recognised as the 29th best British film of all time by the BFI. In 2017, it ranked 15th in the similar list compiled by Time Out.

At the point of selling his company in the early 1990s, George Harrison produced 23 films with HandMade, picking up on the scripts that he liked and simply having fun with the possible outcome. As Eric Idle said in Living in the Material World, a Scorsese-directed documentary on the Quiet Beatle’s life, “he would test things by what made him laugh or what was close to his heart.” It’s difficult not to see that in his approach to choosing quirky, unconventional films he’d helped to make.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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