10:42 am Oct. 4, 2011
Martin Scorsese's latest documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, opens with grainy home-movie footage of a bunch of red tulips in a garden bed. The camera stays on the tulips for a long time. Nothing happens for a while. Then, from the right hand of the screen, George Harrison enters, squatting behind the tulips, staring directly into the camera with an unblinking gaze. Then, again, nothing happens for a while. It's mysterious, and a bit confrontational, and is a good launching pad for a lengthy examination of this man of extremes.
Despite its length (208 minutes), Living in the Material World doesn't provide any startling new insight into George Harrison, and most of the events are familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the man: Beatlemania, Harrison's competition with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in terms of songwriting, his introduction to the music of Ravi Shankar, his use of psychedelic drugs, the earnest commitment to meditation, his Willy Wonka-ish house Friar Park, his long solo career. However, Living in the Material World is an emotional and intimate portrait of a man on a spiritual quest, a topic that Martin Scorsese is obviously drawn to thematically in his own work. The struggle to reconcile being a famous millionaire and being a spiritual being (reflected in the title of the documentary) is really what Living in the Material World is about.
The combination of archival footage (some never seen before, believe it or not) and current interviews (with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Phil Spector, Eric Idle, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, and others) give Living in the Material World the effect of an energetic collage. Putting together such a vast amount of footage had to be a daunting prospect, especially when there is already so much out there about the Beatles. And in fact it turns out there wasn't much that was new here, although I, for one, never get sick of seeing early footage of the Beatles, in Hamburg, Liverpool, and their first trip to the United States: the crowds swarming the sidewalks, the screaming girls, the irreverent cutting-up of the four boys in various interviews.
Living in the Material World, which was co-produced by Harrison's widow, Olivia Harrison, is split up into two parts, the first being Harrison's time in the Beatles, and the second encompassing his post-Beatles career. The collage of the film, however, is less literal than that, and there is no omniscient narrator talking about biographical events or leading us from A to B. Either the interviews with those who knew Harrison let us understand which phase of his life we are entering, or it's done through the footage chosen by Scorsese and his team.
Post-Beatles, Harrison became more mysterious, perhaps more unreachable, although his solo career started with the triple album All Things Must Pass, the scope of which was eloquent on the face of it about his frustration with his role in the Beatles. Harrison turned out to be a pioneer in many ways, including introducing the Western world to the music of Ravi Shankar. His concert for Bangladesh set the standard for rock-star humanitarian-relief efforts.
The Traveling Wilburys, the "supergroup" Harrison formed with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, was an important part of his artistic life, and Scorsese has found some fun footage of the guys rehearsing and recording. Petty is also interviewed for the documentary, and describes a phone call he got from Harrison when word came that Roy Orbison had died. After saying that maybe he shouldn't share this little anecdote, Petty says that the phone rang the second he heard the news, and he knew it was George. He picked up the phone, and heard George say to him, "Aren't you glad it's not you?"
Harrison's obsession with death was one of the things that led to his meditation practice, because he wanted to be ready to leave his body in the right way when the time came.
In 1999, when George Harrison was already dying, a crazed man broke into Harrison's home and stabbed him with a knife. Olivia Harrison was also involved in the fight, which made international headlines the next day. George survived his wounds (a collapsed lung as well as stab wounds), and lived until 2001, and Olivia's retelling of that experience in Living in the Material World is harrowing. But what struck her most at the time was her husband's fear that he would, after all of his meditative practice, die in this way, in a knife battle in his own home.
There was something touchingly human about that revelation. John Lennon said about the Beatles, "We were just a band that made it very, very big. That's all." Likewise, George Harrison was just a human being who was anxious and curious about death like most of us.
Scorsese, true to his Roman Catholic upbringing, is a searcher, a compulsive worrier and interested in matters of life and death, mortality and resurrection. No Direction Home, his 2005 documentary on Bob Dylan, has an immediacy and urgency to it because Dylan himself takes us through his life in detailed interviews. Harrison is no longer here to speak for himself. The interviews Scorsese gets are wonderful, and include such gems as McCartney referencing Harrison's simple guitar-playing on "And I Love Her" with, "That [guitar] is the song," a surprisingly generous statement from a songwriter, and entirely accurate as well. Ringo Starr tears up at one point, wipes away the tear with a ringed finger, and then jokes, "It's like Barbara fucking Walters here, isn't it?"
Living in the Material World is maybe a bit too reverent toward its topic, with not even one reference to the law suit Harrison found himself embroiled in for over 10 years, after Harrison's "My Sweet Lord", from All Things Must Pass in 1970, was found to be copied from The Chiffon's hit "He's So Fine". But that's a quibble. Scorsese has crafted an affectionate, detailed look at an important artist, giving as much time to his spiritual practice as to his years in the Beatles. Spirituality is not necessarily exciting material, but it is important, because it illuminates the wellspring of much of George Harrison's art.
In the Skype press conference following the screening, Olivia Harrison, seated beside director Martin Scorsese, said, "It is an honest film about a curious man."
LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD premieres at the New York Film Festival on October 4th, and will premiere on HBO in two parts, October 5th and 6th.
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- At the Tribeca Film Festival: Will Forte's surprising, successful dramatic debut
- At the Tribeca Film Festival: A message to you from a West Virginia town ruined by Oxycontin