“George Harrison: Living in the Material World” (2011). Director: Martin Scorsese. www.georgeharrison.com
George Harrison lived in two worlds, one being the everyday reality of physical existence with which we’re all familiar, a world in which he attained great notoriety as a musician, film producer and activist, and the other being the world of spirit, the ethereal realm wherein we seek to discover our place in the Universe and our relationship to the Divine, a world in which George engaged in a perpetual quest for meaning. It made for a very full life, one that he savored in all its aspects, as is apparent in director Martin Scorsese’s new two-part HBO documentary, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World.”
Scorsese’s take on Harrison’s life shows him to be more than just the former Beatle who pursued a solo career in his years after the Fab Four. In fact, the director portrays his subject as being someone who lived a very rich, varied, sometimes-contradictory life, one that was just as much about preparing for what comes after this incarnation as it was about experiencing what was going on at the moment. This balanced approach portrays Harrison as more than just a celebrity and pop musician; it shows him as one who goes through all of the questing that we each do as both physical and spiritual beings.
In many respects, Scorsese paints a picture of Harrison that goes beyond the sort of standard biographical information one might find in fare like VH-1’s Behind the Music series. He assumes viewers already know a lot of that and, instead, provides us with a very personal look at the George many of us probably know little about. We see glimpses of his personal life that received little attention, such as his early upbringing and his relationships with wives Olivia and Pattie Boyd. We learn about his many friendships with people as diverse as Formula One racing champion Jackie Stewart, Monty Python regulars Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam and, of course, an array of musicians, including everyone from Bob Dylan to Roy Orbison. And, of course, there’s the complicated role he played as a member of the Beatles, one where he sometimes served as the glue that kept the group together and one where he sometimes railed over more of his songs not making it onto the group’s albums.
But, perhaps even more importantly, Scorsese provides an in-depth look at George’s spiritual search, an aspect of his life that received little fanfare but was just as significant to him as anything he did in a recording studio. His experimentation with psychedelic drugs, transcendental meditation and Eastern religion all contributed to his search for meaning, something that played a huge role in his life and that he strongly believed was essential to his preparation for his eventual transition from the material world. This aspect of the film truly brings forth Harrison’s multidimensional nature, a quality we all share but rarely get to see exemplified as well as we do here.
The documentary, organized more or less chronologically, features a wealth of archival footage, some of it quite rare, intercut with audio clips of George’s recordings with the Beatles, from his solo career, from his collaborations with sitarist Ravi Shankar and in his participation as a member of super-group the Traveling Wilburys. There are also clips from numerous interviews with Harrison throughout his career, as well as segments from new interviews with former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, musician buddies Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and Ravi Shankar, producer Phil Spector, and family members, including son Dhani and wives Olivia and Pattie.
As revelatory and enlightening as this film is, however, it does have its drawbacks. Some significant events from Harrison’s life are completely overlooked, such as the copyright infringement lawsuit brought against him over his hit My Sweet Lord, as well as the success of his solo career in much of the 1970s and ’80s, including his highly acclaimed album Cloud Nine released in 1987. The editing leaves much to be desired at times, too, with some segments flowing rather aimlessly from one to the next and some audio clips being inexplicably cut off abruptly. But, even with these shortcomings, the documentary has much to offer about its subject, presenting Harrison’s life story in a captivating way.
While watching this film, it’s amazing to realize just how much incredible music this one individual produced during an all-too-short lifetime. But, when one considers how this accomplishment was only one among many in the life of an extraordinarily gifted human being, it’s heartening to see just how much we as human beings are truly capable of. George left us with a lot during his time on earth, and “Living in the Material World” does a fine job of putting it on display, inspiring us to the ways of a remarkable individual.