Taking its name from George Harrison’s 1973 album, Living In The Material World is Martin Scorsese’s epic and affectionate two-part documentary on the life of the mercurial and inquisitive former Beatle who died in 2001.
Often considered to be the ‘Quiet One’ of The Beatles, Scorsese’s biopic makes it clear that Harrison was anything but; he was merely more content to explore his passions than in cultivating a public persona. Beginning in wartime Liverpool and ending somewhere on the Ganges, it presents a broadly chronological account of Harrison’s life and love of music, religion, gardening, film, comedy and motor sport.
Interviewees include Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd, Eric Idle, Tom Petty, Phil Spector, Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voormann, Yoko Ono, Harrison’s brothers Peter and Harry, his son Dhani and wife Olivia.
I will never forget the first time I heard All Things Must Pass, the overwhelming feeling of taking in all that glorious music for the first time. It was like walking into a cathedral. George was making spiritually awake music – we all heard and felt it – and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives. So when I was offered the chance to make this picture, I jumped at it. Spending time with Olivia, interviewing so many of George’s closest friends, reviewing all that footage, some of it never seen before, and listening to all of that magnificent music – it was a joy, and an experience I’ll always treasure.
The first half is largely devoted to the Beatles years, with much of the footage already seen in the 1990s’ Anthology. Scorsese seems to have pitched his documentary firmly at fans already familiar with the story, so background knowledge (who was Stuart Sutcliffe? How did George discover Indian music?) is often assumed.
The 208-minute documentary also drags in places, and several times veers wildly off course. A section on Transcendental Meditation includes an archive interview in which Maharishi Mahesh Yogi explains at unnecessary length the benefits of chanting with a mantra; similarly, the discussion on blasphemy in The Life Of Brian between Michael Palin, John Cleese, Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark is well known and largely redundant here, and leave us no nearer to knowing Harrison’s thoughts on the issue.
Most bizarrely of all, when the documentary discusses the 1968 Wonderwall Music soundtrack, it is accompanied by a sequence from 1966’s Blow Up, a film with which Harrison had no involvement. Scorsese may be a great director, but his editor, David Tedeschi, should have been more diligent.
The documentary’s second part is perhaps more interesting. Covering a longer period in Harrison’s life, it is a tale less familiar than the Beatles years, and explores his enduring Hindu beliefs, his marriage breakdown, friendship with Ravi Shankar, love of racing, and his solo music career.
Some areas are given more screen time than others: All Things Must Pass (with some wonderfully revealing anecdotes from a raspy, pre-incarceration Phil Spector), the Concert For Bangladesh, the disastrous Dark Horse tour, and the Traveling Wilburys are mentioned at length, but Harrison’s other solo works are barely touched upon.
The new and archive interviews are interspersed with home footage and family photographs, revealing how genuinely content Harrison was to spend time with family and friends. Indeed, it is suggested that he teamed up with the Monty Python crew for The Life Of Brian precisely because he missed the close working unit that The Beatles had provided in the 1960s.
Harrison’s dry sense of humour never left him. Monty Python’s Eric Idle tells how, as Harrison was being stretchered from his Friar Park mansion following the 1999 knife attack, he noticed two newly-recruited employees watching from the gardens. “Are you enjoying the job so far?” he wryly asked the shocked onlookers.
A tearful Ringo Starr also recounts how, when paying a visit to a bed-ridden Harrison in Switzerland as death drew closer, Starr had to leave to visit his daughter, then herself undergoing treatment for cancer. “Do you want me to come with you?” Harrison asked, in his droll Liverpudlian manner.
Unlike Olivia Harrison’s tie-in book, Scorsese’s documentary doesn’t shy away from mentioning George’s drug use or womanising. Nor, too, does it airbrush his first wife Pattie Boyd from history; she appears, interviewed and in a series of photographs, and Eric Clapton discusses the well-told tale of how he came between her and George.
The DVD extras include some additional musical performances, including Harrison’s home films of him playing the ukulele and a soundcheck from the Concert For Bangladesh, and some unused interviews. Most intriguing, however, is a studio sequence in which Dhani Harrison, George Martin and Giles Martin play the eight-track tape of ‘Here Comes The Sun’, revealing a hitherto unheard guitar solo which even George Martin had forgotten about. This sequence, though tantalisingly short, is almost worth the purchase price alone.
Death weighs heavily at the documentary’s end. Harrison’s recurrent cancer, believed beaten but merely dormant, provided the spur for his final acceptance of death. The 1999 knife attack at the hands of an intruder to his home provided a reminder that, even if he couldn’t escape the inevitable, he could write the script of how it would happen.
Death is such a big adventure it profoundly alters the lives of all those attached to the departing soul. When the time for George came, that momentarily open door to the infinite caught my sleeve then slammed shut, leaving behind the fabric of my being in jagged shreds.
Tragedy is much more of an adventure than joy. I am not saying joy is over-rated. But happiness is fleeting; it exists in the present. Tragedy casts a long and persistent shadow with the power to dim even the most perfect moment. It also has the potential to follow us to the end. We don’t stop to analyze happiness but when grief and strife occur we recount the events leading up to it over and over. It wakes us from our sleep as we try to figure out how and where it all went wrong. Of course, with death, the question is more of a ‘why’? But for me, the question was, ‘what is it I am meant to do now?’ The script was changed, as George said when John Lennon was killed: ‘That’s not how the script goes. It was like someone tore out that page and stuck a new one in.’ My movie changed too.
As Olivia explains in the film, they spent the final six months of George’s life making peace with death, preparing to finally leave the material world. It is a moving sequence in which Harrison’s heartfelt spiritual music provides the perfect emotional counterweight. For all its flaws elsewhere, this is a fitting epitaph for a beautiful soul who left us all too soon.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World was released on DVD, Blu-ray and Limited Deluxe Edition, which includes the DVD, Blu-ray, book of unseen photography and illustrations, and a CD of previously unheard tracks sung by Harrison, on 10 October 2011 in the UK.