Released during the early heyday of rock-concert films and documenting one of the first major media-event benefit shows, The Concert for Bangladesh has lost none of its musical power over the years. And even if the sociopolitical issues that inspired the concert featured onscreen have long since fallen from public view, there’s still something inspiring about the way legendary musician George Harrison put his weight behind an important cause simply because he was asked to do so by a friend. That friend, of course, was the iconic Indian musician Ravi Shankar, an important influence during Harrison’s days with the Beatles and beyond. Seeing widespread famine in the Asian nation of Bangladesh, Shankar and Harrison arranged an August 1971 show featuring two historic performances—Harrison’s first important appearance as a solo artist, following a long absence from the road that began with the Beatles’ cessation of touring in 1966, and Bob Dylan’s return to the stage after a lengthy hiatus.
While Dylan, Harrison, and Shankar serve as the show’s de facto headliners, the concert also includes contributions from an all-star backing band comprising Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr, and the members of Badfinger, among others. (Purists will note that the movie actually merges clips from two performances that were presented on the same day in New York’s Madison Square Garden, though the film unfolds as if performances were contiguous.) Shot in a sleek but unobtrusive fashion by director Saul Swimmer and his team, The Concert for Bangladesh opens with some quick reportage explaining the circumstances of the show, then focuses on performances for the bulk of the running time. Shankar kicks things off with an epic jam of traditional Indian music that sprawls across nearly 20 minutes. Appropriate and edifying, though perhaps not thrilling for rock fans.
Then Harrison takes the stage with his band for a ferocious run through “Wah-Wah” and a joyous version of “My Sweet Lord” (both from Harrison’s seminal All Things Must Pass). Soon the backing musicians make their presence known. Preston lays down industrial-strength gospel funk with “That’s the Way God Planned It,” while Starr amiably croons his first solo hit, “It Don’t Come Easy.” Clapton steps to the fore during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” re-creating the fretboard pyrotechnics of the original Beatles version on which he was an uncredited guest musician. Then, after Russell plays a couple of bluesy covers and Harrison offers a lovely acoustic take on “Here Comes the Sun,” Dylan delivers a crisp set that climaxes with a trio version of “Just Like a Woman” featuring Dylan, Harrison, and Russell on vocals. Harrison closes the show just as powerfully as he opened it, and the whole rock segment flies by in a glorious rush. Like the best live shows, The Concert for Bangladesh leaves the audience on a high—a great testament to the discipline and taste that Harrison, who co-produced the movie with Allen Klein, exhibited in shaping the piece.
The Concert for Bangladesh: GROOVY