Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the classic movie Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. It was based on the 1985 non-fiction book Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi and Henry Hill. The 1990 movie told the story of the rise of Henry Hill as a mobster with the Lucchese crime family in New York City. Joe Pesci won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his portrayal of mob operative Tommy DeVito. As a result of the anniversary, articles appeared in major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic in the last weeks, such as “How ‘Goodfellas’ and the Gangster Class of 1990 Changed Hollywood” in the New York Times and “Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas” in the Washington Post.
Of course, Beatles fans know that in 2011 Martin Scorcese released a brilliant 208 minute documentary on the life of George Harrison titled George Harrison: Living in the Material World. The documentary covered all aspects of Harrison’s life, from a boy in Liverpool to the end as a solo performer, and everything in between. A review titled “Within Him, Without Him” appeared in the New York Times on September 23, 2011.
Long a fan of Harrison’s work, Scorcese used the Harrison song “What Is Life” from the classic 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass in Goodfellas, some eleven years before making the documentary. The scene, captioned as “May 11, 1980”, is towards the end of the movie when main character Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, is having a whirlwind of difficult day in which he is trying to cook a traditional Italian dinner for his family at home, while having to pick up a shipment of drugs and get it ready for his carrier to travel with it on a plane – all while being followed by a police helicopter throughout the day. The scene is posted below, but please note there is some language in the scene which may be viewed as unsuitable.
Ironically, several years after the release of the movie, the real Henry Hill published a cookbook of all of the great Italian recipes that he learned in his life in the mob. Hill’s book is titled The Wise Guy Cookbook: My Life as a Goodfella to Cooking on the Run.
“What Is Life” was the second single released from the album. However, in the UK it was the B-side of “My Sweet Lord”, which was the best-selling single of 1971. In terms of the Billboard Hot 100, Harrison was both the first ex-Beatle to have a number one hit (“My Sweet Lord” in 1971) and the last ex-Beatle to top the charts (“Got My Mind Set On You” in 1988). “What Is Life” reached the top ten in both the U.S. and Canada, while topping the charts in other countries, such as Australia and Switzerland.
Co-produced by Harrison and Phil Spector, Harrison provided lead guitar while his friend Eric Clapton handled the chores of rhythm guitar. The entire band of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends were the backing band.
Harrison originally wrote this song for friend Billy Preston with a gospel feel, but when it took the turn of being a fast rocker he decided to record the song himself. Countless artists have covered “What Is Life”, including Olivia Newton-John who had a UK hit with the song in 1972.