Rock ‘n’ roll and Academy-Award-winning Italian American filmmaker Martin Scorsese are inextricably linked. After decades of creating striking pictures soundtracked to the likes of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and the Phil Spector-produced Girl Group strut and constructing documentaries about some of the biggest giants in contemporary music — Bob Dylan (“No Direction Home:Bob Dylan“), The Band (“The Last Waltz“) and the Stones (“Shine a Light“) — Scorsese finally turned his gaze to one titan in rock he had yet to cross paths with, The Beatles. Or more specifically in this case, the enigmatic “quiet” Beatle, George Harrison (though trainspotters will note that “What Is Life” is briefly featured in “Goodfellas“).
Five years in the making, it’s not unjust to breathe the word Beatles in the sprawling, two-part, three-and-a-half hour “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” because if you only stuck around for the first half and or walked in late, you’d be vaguely excused if you had believed the documentary was a Harrison-based doc on the Fab Four.
Extensive and perhaps excessively-focused on the underrated songwriter’s spiritual beliefs, ‘Living in the Material World’ can’t possibly cover the life of George Harrison and yet the immersive, marathon-long doc sums it up quite successfully in what ultimately is a moving and stirring portrait of the departed artist.
Bifurcated, each half of the documentary could be split up into “During The Beatles” and “Post-Beatles,” but the only reason Scorsese lingers so comprehensively on a well-documented period in rock history is that he understands context is key – everything the young man experienced in his formative days with the biggest band in the world inexorably transformed him and laid the groundwork for the man he would become. While die-hard Beatles or Harrison fans might not find a lot of new insight in that first half, it does have its purpose.
Non-linear, the documentary jumps around in time to great effect, placing the demise of the Beatles and the use of one of Harrison’s greatest, most key and thematic songs, the wise and melancholy “All Things Must Pass,” right off the top of the doc, freeing itself from the trappings of regular chronology.
One of the key discoveries in the first half of ‘Material World’ is a Beatles-era Harrison observing early on that the group achieved everything that people could ever hope for – fame, fortune, power, status, influence and more – at an incredibly young age, and came to the realization that these accomplishments were empty and there must be something more meaningful to life. In a way it’s as if Mount Everest has already been climbed and Harrison has to find a new challenge, but the young man is wise enough to discern going even bigger is foolhardy and futile.
What emerges quickly is a complex portrait of an explorer – Harrison’s blooming spirituality doesn’t appear to come from a longing to fill a gaping hole in his internal life, but rather a fortuitous realization that higher consciousness can lead to a contented place for the soul to rest. And it’s not an entirely virtuous portrait either. While his initial meetings with Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi are crucial highlights to his cognizant awakening, counterbalancing Harrison’s mystical side is his “extreme,” doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly, easy-to-anger personality. Harrison’s “split personality” is mentioned several times — his peaceful side and an angry one — and it’s alluded that Harrison wasn’t the most devout husband or boyfriend for that matter, and as his wife Olivia Harrison says in the doc, “he had [his] own Karma to work out.”
Thankfully the words “quiet Beatle” are never uttered and what surfaces is not this superficial public persona – a likeness of a internalized, taciturn musician – but one with a profusion of things to express. However, overshadowed by his older, more famous songwriting partners, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Harrison was obligated to stay in the relative shadows during his Fab Four days.
Using talking head interviews with Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voormann (two key figures from the early Hamburg, Germany days that included former early-Beatles members Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe), ex-wife Pattie Boyd, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jane Birkin, Eric Clapton and more, chapter one of ‘Living in the Material’ world takes the viewer through his blossoming Beatles songwriting endeavors (“Something,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here Comes the Sun”) that would set him on his way right up to the acrimonious demise of the band (featuring some footage from the still-unreleased “Let It Be” film) and foreshadows the exemplary solo career that was about to materialize.
At last, like a dam-bursting revelation, part two finally gets into All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s long-time-coming debut record – an effusive triple album which featured a then-whopping 22 songs. After being relegated to one or two tracks on albums by the Beatles, Harrison outpoured; clearly someone had been storing up a treasure trove of songs.
Featuring interviews with Phil Spector, George Martin, Neil Aspinall, Yoko Ono, Monty Python alum Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam and Tom Petty, the more satisfying second half of the picture rounds out Harrison as a full-dimensional human being and shows the first part as being complementary to the second. While it’s arguable that a preponderance of time is devoted to over-enforcing the theme of Harrison as spiritual seeker – All Things Must Pass is the only album given any real detail – it’s clear that Scorsese is preoccupied with discovering the truth about who the musician was as a person rather than delivering a greatest hits highlight reel of his accomplishments. While this may not fully satisfy musciologist aficionados, what is undeniable impressive is the booming, digitally remastered songs that transform familiar Beatles and Harrison into what sound like awesome, towering epics you’re hearing for the first time. Part of the genius of the doc itself is that like Harrison himself, Scorsese lets the music do most of the talking.
That said, overall, Harrison and Beatlemaniacs, should feel (relatively) satisfied. Most of the important milestones are organically touched upon, including the historic Concert for Bangladesh (one of the first early benefit concerts), the Clapton/Boyd love triangle, his founding of Hand Made Films (the landmark British film company he established to finance his Monty Python friends’ film, “Life of Brian”), The Traveling Wilburys period, his soundtrack work (“Wonderwall“), his Friar Park estate restoration, his 1999 home invasion and his death in 2001 after a long battle with cancer.
Utilizing new interviews and existing footage of all formats — 8MM, 16MM, 35MM, crude VHS videotape, etc. — plus never-before-seen footage culled from the Harrison family archives, Scorsese and his editor David Tedeschi (“No Direction Home: Bob Dylan”) create a marathon tapestry of Harrison’s outer and inner life.
Considering the scope and life of the subject, omissions in the George Harrison story are minor. We’ve heard some half-joking grumblings about the absence of 1987’s Cloud Nine (which spawned the hit “Got My Mind Set On You”), but the chronicling of the more substantive Traveling Wilburys period more than makes up for it. The most glaring oversight (if you can even call it that)– taking into account all the discussions of creating it — is the full story of Harrison’s first number one single, “My Sweet Lord,” from his debut album All Things Must Pass. While the songs’ spiritual connections are documented, what’s missing is the unpleasant aftermath. Harrison was successfully sued by The Chiffons for copyright infringement on their song “He’s So Fine” in one of the first major cases of such in rock history and in a protracted case that went on for 10 years to boot. But something had to go and it’s likely this unfortunate blemish would have been a tangent that would have painted itself into a narrative corner. A ‘70s drug problem seems to be glossed over as well, but there are only so many minutes left.
Veering away from hagiography with balanced, candid testimonials and carefully chosen existing and unseen footage, if anything, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” should wipe away the idea of a quiet anyone. Instead, it replaces that outdated notion with one of an eager collaborator of ideas and a trailblazer willing to think outside Western world conventions and apply that philosophy into a way of life and a state of being, rather than a celebrity-in-crisis, Kabbalah-like fad. If anything, in the second half of Harrison’s career, the musician was saying a lot, the difference being he didn’t really care if anyone was listening or not.
His pal John Lennon, perhaps, gets the best and final word: “George himself is no mystery. But the mystery inside George is immense. It’s watching him uncover it all little by little that’s so damn interesting.” “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” premieres next week on HBO in two parts on October 5 and 6. [B]