On Martin Scorsese’s documentary film, GEORGE HARRISON- LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD – by Tom Beaver
For those of you who have seen Scorsese’s other music documentaries, THE LAST WALTZ (1978) and BOB DYLAN- NO DIRECTION HOME (2005), it will come as no shock that his latest, GEORGE HARRISON- LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD, is just as good and possibly better.
The film is a mature, lean (208 minutes seems like 120 with Scorsese at the helm) portrait of a man who was actively engaged in a constant search for meaning and/or spirituality in an imperfect (material) world. The stockpile of footage and photography that Harrison’s widow, Olivia, provides Scorsese with- is largely what makes the film such a joy to behold. The documentary plays like a moving photo album (with excellent unseen footage as well). It’s as if most of the photography was done by some eccentric uncle with an eye for original images (marvelous photos in the film- truly amazing). Martin Scorsese’s obvious affection for Harrison’s quest and the directors’ proficiency with objective interviews round out any frayed edges a viewer may be compelled to detect (I find people often NEED to find fault with Scorsese).
Most of us with at least two plus decades as living beings are aware of a beloved and enduring band known as The Beatles. Their early, rapid ascent to fame in the early 60′s has rarely been replicated and the delirium/near madness they instilled in female fans is certainly unparallelled. The music the “Fab Four” created transformed the medium and paved the way for many musicians to come (they are undoubtedly one of the most influential bands of all time). They evolved from (possibly the first) popular bubble gum band into the wildly imaginative, LSD laden explorers of the late 60′s (Magical Mystery Tour- anyone?). They seamlessly went from “I Want to Hold your Hand” to “I Am the Walrus” in less than a decade. It was my understanding that the radical transformation of the band was largely due to John Lennon’s restless talent and unpredictable ego. Scorsese’s film suggests otherwise. It may have been Harrison who propelled the group into different artistic directions. The film implies that Harrison had a deep impact on Lennon (and vice versa I’m sure). George’s interests sort of floated John’s way by osmosis. The film also scratches at the surface of a difficult and moody man who was extremely tough on himself. As Phil Specter (eclectic record producer and recent tabloid fodder) says in the film- “George was beyond a perfectionist.”
A terrific young guitar player (with a great haircut according to McCartney) and a unimposing arrogance, it seems destiny led the young Harrison to The Beatles. In 1964 the world was theirs for the taking. When the four went their separate ways in 1970 (much is made of WHY- but as McCartney says in the film- “It’s like a marriage, you love each other, but you get on each other’s nerves as well.”) Harrison immediately looked into uncovering the arsenal of writings he’d cultivated over the years (material not accepted by the other three? or not put on Beatles’ albums). A man as thoughtful and intense as Harrison is gonna’ have some tunes collecting dust in the attic- some of them wonderful- like MY SWEET LORD and WHAT IS LIFE?
Although Scorsese handles Harrison’s tale with genuine class and refreshing taste (Lennon’s murder in 1980 is sublime in the film and perfectly addressed), much of the credit must go to Olivia Harrison. The artist’s widow is a self-aware and vivid presence in the film whose perspective is fresh and clear on camera. You sense nobody knew George like she did- at least outside of The Beatles. Scorsese’s camera surveys this woman in a much different manner than Specter, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty or McCartney (other interviews in the film). The camera seems to comfort her- even caress her- as she speaks of her late husband with admirable poise and diction. After all is said and done- the film might not have been made without her complete cooperation. You can discern from Olivia in the film- speaking of her late husband is not a light matter for her. George was saint and sinner (or as McCartney says, “He WAS a red-blooded male.”) and the infamous triangle between George’s first wife and Eric Clapton (the latter musician swiped Patti Boyd, Harrison’s then wife, and Mr. Clapton comes across in the film as somewhat oafish and thoughtless) is touched upon in the film (it inspired the Derek and the Dominoes classic, LAYLA)- but not dwelled upon. Scorsese’s not concerned with earthly deviations/trivialities any more than Harrison was. He’s interested in Harrison’s spiritual quest. His desire to eventually vacate the body with some dignity. His obsession with Indian/Sitar music (very apparent in the documentary).
Harrison lived in the material world and spent a great amount of time making peace with the pain this entails. His obsessions were not unlike Scorsese’s. Both men are interested in the battered arena of the male soul, the sin littered path to salvation, the pitfalls of adulthood, the perils of violence and the creative impulse sparked by compulsion. Martin Scorsese has always been pre-occupied with ritual (sadly lacking in American society for the most part) whether it’s Christ himself (LAST TEMPTATION), hoodlums entering a cathedral (MEAN STREETS), Buddhists (KUNDUN), mobsters ordained in bloodbaths (GOODFELLAS, CASINO) or Boston cops and robbers circling each other’s corrupted methods (THE DEPARTED). In his latest documentary- one can easily detect Scorsese’s strong interest in Harrison’s need for a meaningful (unpoisoned) transformation of artistic obsessions into rituals.
“The Quiet Beatle” as he was sometimes called, was actually speaking volumes through his own journey toward salvation and reconciliation with his “Sweet Lord.” Harrison died at the age of fifty-eight in 2001 of cancer.
In the most moving scene in the documentary, Ringo tells of the time his daughter was in the hospital and he phoned Harrison (who was also hospitalized at the time). Harrison’s response (please see film if curious) to Starr effectively summarizes the culmination of the man’s life work. He not only succeeded in his own spiritual evolution- he managed to leave us with some truly inspired and enduring music.