George Harrison: Living in the Material World (the Film)

It seems to me Martin Scorsese is one of those artists who improves with age. Always the most masterful of stylists, he was best during his early years when probing the most ugly, violent human behavior, as in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. This is a valid aspect of experience. The passions are human and accessible and he harnessed them to do what all artists are supposed to do (yet few manage) which is take us someplace new.  Still, his preoccupations in these films seemed almost entirely aesthetic. Oddly for someone who once wanted to be a priest, he seemed to have almost completely abdicated any sense of moral sense or voice or duty: “These horrible people do what they do, and we show it, and we’ll let you judge for yourself.” To me, this is unfortunate. It gives too much credit to the audience, which is composed of members of one of the most savage species  that has ever walked the earth, and will only too gladly revert to its pre-civilized ways if given the nod. To me, if you don’t give a few signals of disapproval in your discourse, that’s as good as giving some people the nod. People get off on violence. Forgive me if I think that’s a thing to be discouraged.

Interestingly, during the first few decades of his career, when Scorsese ventured away from gangster/thug themes (as he sometimes did) the results often seemed lackluster, as if – like a sadist – he couldn’t get it up without punishing his characters. Or, on other occasions he would be unable to restrain himself from staging inappropriate excesses of brutality into stories that might have done just fine without it (e.g. New York, New York and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More).

But, as I say, in recent years I think he has grown – at least he has grown a powerful second strain of work, one now sufficiently developed to cast a new light over his entire legacy. This is the documentary strain, closely related to a couple of other aspects of his career, i.e., his handful of bio-pics and his behind-the-scenes efforts as a film preservationist.  This thread of Scorsese’s body of work of course dates back at least to The Last Waltz (filmed 1976, released 1978) long lauded by many as the best rockumentary ever made—and even farther back to Woodstock and Altamont , both of which he worked on, though not as director. In recent years, he has produced (and directed one the episodes of) a documentary television series on the history of the blues, as well as a film about the Rolling Stones, and American Masters installments on Bob Dylan and Eliza Kazin. At the same time, he has turned out these rich, mature bio-pics like The Aviator and last year’s biographically inspired children’s story Hugo, which I rave about here. What a leap forward from the disappointing The Gangs of New York, in which real people were reduced to so many meat puppets. In recent years, it’s as though he feels the weight of his responsibility to treat the stories of the people he admires with maximum care and respect. Scorsese the film-maker is starting to act like a citizen.

These thoughts were prompted because I finally got around to seeing George Harrison: Living in the Material World, released incredibly, in the same year as Hugo, an achievement comparable to my mind to Spielberg delivering Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park the same year (1993). I really didn’t set out to review it; I just wanted to enjoy it. But I loved it so much I couldn’t resist taking notes and it impacted me so much I feel the need to share it.

As in No Direction Home, his Dylan doc, Scorsese assumes the audience already knows a lot about the subject. This isn’t a Beatles primer or George 101. If you don’t already know who the players are (right down to the name of the Beatles’ roadie, or their first photographer), you ought to take those courses – and a few more –before you come here. And that’s one of the film’s many, many rewards. In an effort (I suppose) not to alienate the average viewer, most documentary makers tend to stick to talking heads with a High Q factor, ignoring many of the very people longtime Beatle fans would be THRILLED to see and hear, such as Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voorman, Neil Aspinall, and Patti Boyd Harrison. Scorsese not only foregrounds people like these, but he assumes we already know who Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliff are. Zero time or energy is wasted getting you up to speed, from the film’s very first frames, when Scorsese sets the tone for the film by juxtaposing the title track from All Things Must Pass with shots of bombed out WWII Britain. There is no reason for a subtitle, no reason for anyone to say “George  Harrison was born in 1943”. The picture tells it, and it sets the context for Harrison’s young life and you either get that or you don’t.

A bullet list of some of my favorite moments:

  • An interview with two of George’s brothers, who paint a vivid portrait of the family’s modest circumstances during George’s childhood years – as well as a picture (by example) of the provincial lower-middle-class bloke he might have become if he hadn’t been endowed with a bit more brains and talent than those around him
  • Tons of period footage of Hamburg in the early 60s
  • Cavern-era recording of the Beatles version of “A Taste of Honey” underneath photo stills of the romance between Stu and Astrid
  • Footage circa 1968-69 of George watching a 1964 Beatles performance of “That Boy”. It’s only four years later – might as well be four decades for all the changes that have taken place
  • McCartney’s appreciation of George’s four-note riff for “And I Love Her”, a contribution that he feels “makes the song”
  • Some great early photos and recordings of Harrison’s earliest dealings with Ravi Shankar from early ’65 or ’66.
  • Great interviews with Phil Spector (filmed in jail, I guess) about the sessions for All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh
  • Many illuminating interviews with musical colleagues like McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin, Eric Clapton (also a lifelong friend), Billy Preston, and Jim Keltner
  • “Isn’t it a Pity” underscores the breakup of Harrison’s marriage to Patti Boyd
  • Interviews with auto racing buddy Jackie Stewart – who turns out to be amazingly articulate and wise gentleman
  • Interviews with Python pals Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam about the circumstances surrounding the creation of Handmade Films
  • Candid footage of the Traveling Wilburys sessions
  • Lots of candid footage around Harrison’s picturesque estate Friar Park
  • Harrowing accounts of a crazed intruder’s attack on Harrison’s life; heartbreaking accounts of his last days and his struggles with cancer
  • Interviews with his only son Dhani, who seems like a fine young gentleman

The film mainly focuses on Harrison’s spiritual quest, largely embodied by his music, but not limited to it.  It doesn’t shy away from warts, although we are surprised to learn there are any. We get our first inkling when McCartney, who is always only too happy to knock his sainted bandmates down off their pedestals, volunteers in his artful way that George was “only a man” and a “red blooded male like any of the rest of us.” Harrison’s second wife Olivia shades the picture a bit more and we glean that there continued to be many extramarital lovers in his life, Holy Man or no. (Ironic, since such revelations are what drove the Beatles away from the Maharishi) And Klaus Voorman divulges that Harrison got back into drugs in the 1970s, notably cocaine, which isn’t a bit surprising when you see footage of the normally reserved Harrison acting like an extroverted fool in performance footage from his disastrous Dark Horse tour.

If there is a small lapse (an omission really) it’s the absence of much of Harrison’s music between Dark Horse (1974) and the Wilburys (1988). While Dark Horse marked a decline, he did have subsequent highwater marks including 1976’s Thirty Three and a Third and Cloud Nine (1987). But ya can’t put EVERYTHING in! Nearly every Harrison Beatles song is in the film, and many important post Beatle ones…including one of my favorite songs “What is Life?”, which Scorsese obviously loves too, since he used it in Goodfellas. And Scorsese puts the closing credits to one of my favorite FAVORITE Harrisongs, the lovely, ephemeral, haunting “Long, Long, Long” , which Harrison always said was about his quest to find God.

Harrison’s wife Olivia (interviewed muchly throughout the film and indeed the impetus for its creation) relates that Harrison had told her that he tried to live his life as a preparation in a sense for dying. In other words for dying properly, with nothing left undone, with nothing left unsaid, and with lots of effort to bring beauty and healing to the world. Astoundingly, he actually manage to accomplish this. His is a worthy story, and Scorsese has told it in a worthy manner. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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One comment

  1. Actually, that footage of George watching The Beatles perform on This Boy was around 1977. I’d heard that he let Eric Idle watch all the Beatles footage that Neil Aspinall had acquired, so that Idle could re-create the images for the Rutles movie. I love how George gets a laugh from watching him and his bandmates perform…

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