Perhaps the most remarkable element of this epic documentary from Martin Scorsese is how well the Hollywood veteran finally makes George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle, a fully realized character in the eyes of fans and of the world. It’s a deeply intimate film about a man who favored his privacy and a very public celebration of a man who spent his final years eschewing the trappings of fame and celebrity. There’s a tendency to see Harrison as the gentle peacenik who devoted himself to all matters spiritual and serene and who, like his bandmate Ringo Starr, endured a place in the shadows in the Fab Four. But that’s only part of the story.
Living In The Material World follows Harrison from his early life in Liverpool until his last breath in 2001. Fans, especially those who devoured the Anthology series in the ‘90s, might bristle at one more telling of how The Beatles became The Beatles and then came undone, but it’s all a necessary part of Harrison’s biography and here, that story is not just standard rock doc fare––those elements are, after all, in the hands of one of the great storytellers.
The familiar tensions are present: How childhood friend Paul McCartney tended to talk down to Harrison, only several months his junior, how the guitarist had to fight for his place in a band that that featured the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney, how he came to place greater import on his individuality, and how he, perhaps more successfully than the other three, sloughed off much of his Beatle identity.
Scorsese assembles the expected cast: Friends from The Beatles’ tenure in Hamburg––photographer Astrid Kirchherr and bassist/artist Klaus Voorman––appear as do, of course, Starr and McCartney, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, and latter day friends Jeff Lynne, Terry Gilliam, and Tom Petty. Even when telling familiar stories––Starr’s short-lived departure from the Fab Four in the late ‘60s, Clapton’s appearance on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (a track, its author insists, some other Beatles didn’t take seriously), and Harrison’s time as a Traveling Wilbury––the interview subjects remain fascinating, warm, and funny.
McCartney, who has suffered his share of post-Beatles bashing from critics and fans, is remarkably reverent and, like Starr, a little sad when discussing his departed friend. But realities also abound––by the end of the ‘60s the group was growing apart while each member grew artistically. By 1970 Harrison had written “All Things Must Pass” and “Something” and, according to late Apple Corps. executive Neil Aspinall, was perhaps less interested in being a Beatle than being George.
It’s in the years after the group’s 1971 disbanding that provide the most interesting insights––his friendship and adoration for Ravi Shankar, his increasing spiritual devotion, a headlong dive into drugs, meeting his second wife, Olivia, and a retreat deeper into a private world that included an enthusiasm for race cars, film production (he founded Handmade Films which made the realization of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian possible), fatherhood, gardening, and womanizing. He was, as Gilliam explains, a spiritual man who lived in a material world and was subject to its temptations and its beauty. Harrison, after all, could be angry, bitter, and possessed a wit that was subtle but painfully sharp but he could be tender and generous––and, either side of him was incredibly funny.
Harrison’s latter years saw him retreating even further from the spotlight––he released only three solo albums in the ‘80s, the last of which was 1987’s Cloud Nine, a major commercial success that was followed by two Traveling Wilburys albums and then––aside from a Japanese tour and an occasional appearance on, say, an Eric Clapton album–– silence. His final solo statement, Brainwashed, emerged in November 2002, one whole year after his death.
He recovered from a bout with throat cancer in 1997, only to nearly die two years later during a knife attack in his home. He recovered successfully from that too but by 2001 was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. According to Olivia Harrison, he died peacefully, as he had spent years preparing to be in the proper spiritual state at the moment of death––perhaps, one might argue, the one thing he did perfectly was die––something that might have been his most treasured accomplishment.
Rare home video footage and audio recordings add to the uniqueness of the film that will stand as the definitive statement on George Harrison. Extras include a live performance of the song “Dispute and Violence”, a brief reminiscence from McCartney about a hitchhiking trip the friends took in their youth, and an almost unbearably sad scene of George Martin listening to “Here Comes The Sun” with Dhani Harrison.