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For the one called “The Quiet Beatle,” nearly four hours of documentary dedicated to the life of George Harrison seems a paradox.  Directed by Martin Scorsese, George Harrison: Living in the Material World is fascinating not only for how much of Harrison’s life fills the frames during the film’s lengthy running time, but also for how much is left out.

Using hundreds of never-before-seen photographs and film clips, personal correspondence and interviews, the life of the Liverpudlian guitarist is set before us.  His elder siblings, Harry and Peter, give testimony to their youngest brother’s early self-assurance and the love of music encouraged in the Harrison home.  We discover his association with school chum, Paul McCartney, who would introduce George to fellow guitarist and local tough, John Lennon, and watch as the troika would go on to form three quarters of the most important rock group in history.  Using footage from another documentary {1962’s ode to global prurience, Mondo Cane} we have a vivid picture of the boys’ earliest travels as a band to the Sin City that was Berlin and what the abundance of sex and all manner of vice from all sides must’ve have been like for a seventeen-year-old Harrison.  We also meet some of the figures like Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr, whose bohemian, aesthetic inclinations would irrevocably shape the bands’ image.  Most of the documentary’s first half is all Beatles; the meteoric rise to fame and the discomfort and disillusionment that Harrison seemed to feel most keenly.  Harrison’s struggles to elbow into the accepted songwriting trust of Lennon/McCartney and to bring other artists into The Beatles’ mix are mentioned throughout this period. 

This sets the audience up for the first inklings of George’s curiosity for other voices from other lands with his discovery of Eastern music and the works of sitar virtuoso, Ravi Shankar.  His newfound rapture leads to an interest in the spirituality of the East, and George is soon hooking up with a giggly little guru called the Maharishi, taking trips to India to study meditation and recording music with both Shankar and a Hare Krishna sect.  This pull toward the ether is hampered by being one of the most famous musicians in the world and the simple foibles of humanism; George is outgrowing his old combo creatively and philosophically and his marriage to first wife Patti suffers due to George’s neglect.

The most notable thing having Scorsese at the helm brings to the piece is access.  Though the interviews are conducted by others, surely the fact that the documentary is a Martin Scorsese production got the film crew through many important doors.  We have some of the most revealing, emotional words from drummer Ringo Starr possibly ever captured about his time with George and some of The Beatles’ adventures.  As to be expected, Ringo (and his new hair) are engaging and hilarious when the occasion merits.  We have Astrid Kirchherr’s amazing photographs and candid memories of the boys in those raucous early days and it’s probably the most I’ve ever heard this important figure in early Beatles iconography speak.  Phil Spector’s appearance in the film is a shock not only because the legendary music producer is currently incarcerated for murder, but because of the clarity with which Spector remembers working on Harrison’s first solo album, All Things Must Pass.  Scorsese places a keen eye on Harrison’s shift from the Catholic faith to which he was raised and uses the upheaval and spiritual inquisitiveness of the mid-sixties, including Time Magazine’s 1966 “Is God Dead” cover and the furor over John Lennon’s quip about The Beatles being more popular than Jesus, as a background for the change.  Although a revealing letter to George’s mother, Louise, finds her son assuring her he hasn’t drifted away “from the Sacred Heart,” this intriguing note is not explored further.  

Neither is any detail about George’s marriage to former model, Pattie Boyd; the inspiration for many of George’s best known songs, including the gorgeous, immortal, “Something,” and the object of a well-known triangle between Patti, George, and George’s close friend, guitarist Eric Clapton.  Boyd, still quite fetching at age sixty-seven, is interviewed only very briefly to testify to Harrison’s occasionally startling moodiness, but then is only heard in voiceover, reading a chapter from her recent autobiography, recounting the night Clapton confessed his love for her to George.  Almost nothing is made of their time together or their falling in love.  Boyd seems to only serve as the femme-fatale seen in so many Scorsese movies; threatening to come between the two friends.  One can’t help but wonder if this strange placement was also in part perhaps due to the widow Harrison, Olivia, being one of the documentary’s producers?

There seems to be a lot of shorthand for large moments in George’s life, both personally and professionally.  It appears that Scorsese is depending on his audience to already have a great familiarity with his subject’s history.  There is also an awful lot that even Beatles fans will be left to put together as some interviewees aren’t identified until midway through their chats.  His childhood flies by; we don’t get anything about his love for guitars even up to Harrison’s innovative use of the Rickenbacker 12-string with which he created so many of The Beatles’s iconic riffs.  As it is Scorsese at the helm, much is made of Harrison’s successful career as a film producer and his love of British comedy, particularly Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the inspiration behind his foray into cinema. Oddly, nothing is said of The Beatles’ films, like the Oscar-nominated A Hard Day’s Night.  

There is a patchiness with which the memories are collected that leaves us unsure of when certain moments take place; including the momentous footage of George and Paul signing the last contracts that will sever them from The Beatles.  It would have been nice to know who exactly this “Stuart” guy from back in Berlin that Astrid Kirchherr keeps mentioning was, as well as the origins of some of the photos and footage shown.  One wonderful moment shows Harrison in front of an editing table viewing an old black and white clip of himself and his old cohorts singing “This Boy;” smiling, making comments and adding a whole new line of harmony on top of the one already provided by his younger self and Paul McCartney.  His pleasure in the song is evident, and for one small moment answered a question I’d had but still walked away with after viewing Living in the Material World, and that was did George find any value or happiness in his Beatles years?  So much in the doc seems to point to the answer being no; there’s a derisiveness that veers almost to the point of ingratitude in many of the scenes around the Beatlemania era.  That moment at the editing board was a delightful counterpoint to the unhappiness painted around that time and I’d had loved to know when the footage was shot.  In another instance, we are slowly walked through the creation of Harrison’s first solo hit, “My Sweet Lord,” but aren’t told anything about the subsequent lawsuit over the song’s similarities to the sixties’ single, “He’s So Fine.” 

Nothing is mentioned about his 1987 return to number one on the Billboard charts with the song, "Got My Mind Set on You," the predecessor to his acclaimed Traveling Wilburys project.  George’s shortcomings seem terribly glossed over; including his declining record sales, his drug use and its effect on his voice are mentioned only in passing.  The close up shot of an uncomfortable Olivia discussing George’s infidelity only seems cruel to the wife who had to deal with it.  We get no sense of how he rationalised these harmful behaviours to himself and the ones he loved, especially when so much is made of his search for inner peace.  We’re only told that at the end of his life, these issues didn’t matter.  

Death was a big deal to Harrison and he spent a lot of his time preparing for leaving this world the best way he could, even before he knew cancer would finally claim him.  Olivia’s chilling first-person account of George’s stabbing at the hands of a home invader not only shocks, but infuriates the viewer, because as Harrison’s only son, Dhani, imparts, it surely shortened the life he had left.  There’s a welcome focus on George’s groundbreaking charity concert and album for the people of Bangladesh and on his being a pioneer for bringing world music into the mainstream.

For its trove of unseen treasures alone, George Harrison: Living in the Material World is required viewing for Beatles and Harrison fans.  The film will probably be the most definitive look at the guitarist’s life we’ll ever see, though I’m not entirely sure I’m pleased about it.  I wish there had been more insight into Harrison the man and a bit more thought into the best way to parse the huge amount of information in these four hours.  So much time and effort is spent on either Beatlemania or his ethereal pursuits and spirituality that the audience is left with as many questions about George Harrison by the film’s close as in its opening credits.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

October 1st, 2011


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