George Harrison: Living In The Material World

George Harrison: Living In The Material World

George Harrison: Living In The Material World debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Early in Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour documentary George Harrison: Living In The Material World (airing on HBO in two parts, tonight and tomorrow), Harrison is seen in an interview from the ’90s, saying that when The Beatles started out, it was “a big deal” just for them to do a ballroom tour. In just a few short years, the band would be bigger than they could’ve ever imagined, transformed by screaming crowds—and by their own internal rivalry—into generational icons. Through it all, Harrison struggled to figure out his part in the phenomenon. The band was a unit, and worshipped as a unit, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney had the real power, while Harrison contributed a few songs and ideas, along with his own personality, which could be as sweetly dippy as Paul’s, as acerbic as John’s, and as agreeably professional as Ringo Starr’s. Harrison was integral to the band, and yet in some ways was just along for the ride. So as his bank account swelled, Harrison coped with the isolation of wealth and fame by embarking on a spiritual journey. While the youth of the ’60s looked to The Beatles for meaning, Harrison tried to assure that they wouldn’t find emptiness.

What keeps Living In The Material World from being just another “Hey man, The Beatles were awesome!” doc is that it focuses specifically on Harrison’s warring impulses. On the one hand, he was a sensitive, caring person who tried to make other people feel loved; on the other, he could be a brutally honest, self-centered bloke, who succumbed to his carnal desires and hoarded money. (Harrison did write “Taxman,” after all.) Living In The Material World is divided in half, with the first half dedicated to Harrison’s stint with The Beatles, and the second half documenting the demise of the band and Harrison’s efforts to leave his mark on the world as a solo artist. But both halves are really the same story: about a man who strove to be humble, while also grumbling that he was under-appreciated. 

Living In The Material World is a little shapeless, likely as a byproduct of its esoteric theme. Scorsese does move (mostly) chronologically, but since the movie is not specifically about Harrison’s musical career, it tends to lurch between anecdotes about Harrison’s personal life and reminiscences about how certain songs came to be, all intercut with performance footage that either runs for a few seconds or a few minutes, almost randomly. As with a lot of Scorsese’s recent documentary projects, the director’s level of involvement isn’t always plainly evident. His voice isn’t heard during the interview segments, and there aren’t any clear marks of his style in the shooting or the editing. The absence of voiceover narration hurts a little, too, since it’s not always clear why each segment is significant to the overall narrative that Scorsese is constructing.

The arc of the film though is very much of a piece with the filmography of the man who made Kundun and The Last Temptation Of Christ (as well as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, which are also films about spiritual quests, in a way). Most documentaries about members of The Beatles cover the “bigger than Jesus” controversy, using it as an example of the band’s out-of-control popularity, or John Lennon’s arrogance, or the media’s cluelessness. Scorsese though ties it to Billy Graham’s crusades and the Time “Is God Dead?” cover, considering how popular culture became the new spirituality in the ’60s. Then he ties that to the fact that The Beatles were so popular they couldn’t even walk among their “disciples,” which turned them into a fraternity of four and may have exacerbated their dissolution. (Then again, it also bound the boys together even after the break-up, since only they knew what it was to be a Beatle.)

Scorsese makes good use of studio outtakes and chatter to create a kind of “audio verité” behind the archival footage, and to give a fresh spin to some familiar songs. And though Living In The Material World would’ve been a lot stronger thematically if it had focused more on Harrison’s weaknesses—his drug habits, his philandering, his insecurity as the main man in the spotlight—the film does show how Harrison had a few formative experiences, such as joining The Beatles and experiencing the decadence and artistic freedom of Germany, that he then tried to replicate throughout his life. He hit all the big hippie scenes in the ’60s, got involved with movie production (working primarily with the members of Monty Python) in the ’70s and ’80s, and then he formed The Traveling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. Some of these experiences were satisfying in their own way; none were exactly as he’d hoped.

That’s what makes Living In The Material World so moving, ultimately. Despite the shagginess, Scorsese mostly stays focused on Harrison as a reflection of his fans, eternally searching for something elusive—something that only came around occasionally. That notion gives meaning of the shot that opens and closes the film, of a patch of flowers that Harrison pokes his head into. He’s there, in those flowers. We just have to wait for him to show up.

Stray observations:

  • McCartney says that the school he and Harrison went to was so Dickensian that Charles Dickens actually taught there.
  • Having read Eric Clapton’s autobiography Crossroads, most of Clapton’s comments about how he was jealous of The Beatles and Harrison were old news to me, but I did find it interesting that he and Harrison both tried to play down the legend of “Layla” (the song Clapton used to steal Harrison’s wife), saying that at the time there was a lot of swapping going on.
  • It’s only hinted that that the footage of Harrison in the ’70s singing an energetic, reggae-ish version of “What Is Life?” is from a time when he was doing a lot of cocaine. But certainly he comes off as pretty wired.
  • Bob Dylan looks so terrible in the Wilburys footage: all potbellied and out-of-synch with his own ’80s clothes.
  • I loved the sequence in part one—set to “Money”—in which The Beatles are interviewed about being millionaires, and Lennon shrugs it off, saying, “A lot of it goes to her majesty.” At which point Harrison interjects, “She’s a millionaire.” Harrison was known as “the quiet Beatle,” but when he did speak, he cut right to the quick.
  • When Roy Orbison died, Harrison called up Tom Petty and said, “Aren’t you glad it’s not you?” And after Petty laughed and agreed, Harrison said of Orbison, “Just listen. He’s still around.”

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