George Harrison: Living in the Material World is a documentary by Martin Scorsese. The film is approximately four hours long, and since HBO doesn’t allow folks to pause for bathroom breaks, it was delivered in two parts, the evenings of October 5 and 6. It was billed, by Olivia Harrison, the ex-Beatle’s widow, as definitive. She admitted that it was filmed to get the adulatory public off her (and son Dhani’s) back as much as to tell any story.
I suppose it’s entirely possible to enjoy an artist, only to dislike a documentary or biopic about the person. This happens rarely; in fact, it’s more often than not the opposite. It’s revealing to watch films like Scott Joplin, where Billy Dee Williams played the rather unlikable ragtime star. I liked the film. I learned a lot, through the filter of Hollywood storytelling of course, but these things are informative. Recently, I reviewed No Direction Home, Scorsese’s documentary that reveals Bob Dylan’s early years. I find Dylan to be an extremely unlikeable fellow, but I left the film feeling sympathetic toward him. Furthermore, I admired Scorsese’s craftsmanship.
The opposite occurred when I watched Living in the Material World. I really like George Harrison. He’s always been one of my favorite Beatles. Yet this documentary was dull. Maybe this is because I knew the story already. I’ve read a number of biographies about the guy, watched all ten hours of the Beatles Anthology, and heard most of the film clips. It was interesting to hear Eric Clapton’s voice, as well as former wives Patty Boyd and Olivia Harrison. The usual cast was there: the surviving ex-Beatles, and their inner circle, as well as Yoko Ono, sitting in for John. We also got to see auto racer Jackie Stewart, Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, and rocker Tom Petty.
The story was banal. What stones were there left to turn over? The media have scavenged for Beatles trivia for the fifty years now, when they first landed their recording contract. We knew George wrote Taxman, and had a stereotypically Scottish obsession with hoarding money. We knew he was quite sour with Paul when the Beatles broke up. We knew he poured himself into Eastern thoughts and religion.
Scorsese barely mentions Harrison’s family. Is this out of respect to Harrison’s privacy, or does the director just view it as irrelevant? I notice that No Direction Home pays no attention to Dylan’s family either. I suppose I found myself wishing the film had dug deeper.
The friends interviewed seemed to universally state things like “I wish I believed we were close friends, but I just don’t know.” Even Clapton, who I always assumed was Harrison’s closest friend, said this, as did Tony Stewart, Jeff Lynne, Eric Idle, and Tom Petty. It makes me wonder where the title came from. I assume because of his adherence to Eastern thought. Harrison himself marks Ravi Shankar as one of the most influential human beings in his life: “certain people can teach without saying a word. Ravi Shankar is one of those people.” Paul McCartney called George a man’s man, who loved manly things that men love. I think he was delicately trying to say “Harrison liked to sleep with women.” The director, I suppose, marked it as another of those spiritual/material issues. for Harrison.
Olivia said that one of George’s greatest regrets of Lennon’s 1980 death was that John was unable to leave his body in the way he chose. This was a predominant narrative throughout the latter half of the film. George says everything in life was a preparation for his moment of death, when he leaves his body. I suppose, in a way, this was my one discovery from the film: all life, for George, is a preparation for being ready to die. His thoughts were nearly borne out in 1999: the documentary devotes 10 or 15 minutes to Harrison’s home invasion, when he and his wife were stabbed and nearly killed by a deranged fan. “…he not busy being born is busy dying,” says Bob Dylan, in the track “It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” I wonder if Scorsese noticed the similarities between the philosophies of his two subjects.
The first ten minutes of the documentary were chaotic, in a rapidfire review of several songs and pictures, from current Harrison to old Beatles at their peak, to a pre-Beatles Harrison on a tape recorder. Cutaways in the first ten minutes were of video and still montages, songs, color and b&w. If I had not known Harrison’s early story, I’d have felt a bit cheated, as the overwhelming amount of information being given me at once. I’m sure it was intentional on Scorsese’s part. Every once in awhile, throughout the film the editing was startling: there would be several seconds of black, or moving from a song, to silence. I’m sure these effects, too, had some sort of meaning. It escaped me, and simply proved to be an annoying distraction. I’ll have to admit: I listened to much of the documentary, like a radio serial, while doing a sudoku. I found nothing visually striking.
There were a few moments of joy and beauty. He loved his garden, and worked for hours on end, sometimes by moonlight. We find out that in the 1970s he gave up the sitar, when he realized that his medium would always be guitar; and there, he redoubled his efforts to pop music. We understand, from two or three new angles, the story of Patty Boyd, Clapton, and Harrison. Clapton himself refers to the Harrison home in Esher as Camelot, and to himself as Lancelot. Two or three letters home, to Harrison’s mother, while on tour, were beautifully and touchingly read. Harrison’s was the only family untouched by death or divorce. When Ringo told the camera Harrison’s last words to him, a tear ran down the drummer’s eye, as well as my wife’s and my own.
In well, it was a well-executed, if pedestrian documentary. The first quarter-hour was chaotic and confusing. It gave nothing new to veteran Beatles fans. I liked it. Nothing amazing. I’ve already deleted it from my DVR.
Three and a half, of five, stars.