Martin Scorsese loves music. Furthermore, he understands its rhythms and potency like few directors do. That’s why I had such high hopes going into his 3 and a 1/2-hour documentary, “George Harrison: Living In the Material World.” The film airs in two parts on HBO Oct. 5 and Oct. 6.
There are moments of exhilaration and illumination, and, of course, there is the glorious music. However, the documentary isn’t consistently compelling and could use some tighter focus.
The first half is devoted to Harrison’s childhood and the Beatles’ formation. Even the most casual Beatles fan will feel the excitement of seeing footage of the band during its formative years in Hamburg, Germany, but the story devotes more time to the group as a whole than to Harrison (other than we learn he had a nasty temper that could show up very unexpectedly). Not that a documentary on Harrison has to have the spotlight pointed at him 100%, but Scorsese allows talking heads like Hamburg photographer Astrid Kirchherr and her boyfriend, musician Klaus Voormann (or at least he was until the Beatles original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe pulled her away), to go on a little too long about the general zeitgeist during the Beatles’ time in Germany.
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Still, there are some thrilling moments and Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the difficulties Harrison felt in the Beatles. He beautifully captures the isolation that almost immediately seized the Fab Four once their popularity exploded, and how corrosive and lonely that was for four young men who, from all outside appearances, had the world by a string. In some of the more effective moments, Scorsese uses letters Harrison wrote to his parents to underscore the frenzy of the moment, including one where he details, in shockingly good humor, having to bolt from a car before overzealous fans crushed it.
Scorsese also highlights Harrison’s frustration at his inability to get his songs heard in the shadow of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s towering talents. But there is a moment when we hear his delicate guitar work from “If I Needed Someone” from 1965’s “Rubber Soul” that is so stunning in its beauty and clarity that it takes your breath away. That sound, more than any other, brings home how in any other group, he would have been the prime songwriter.
Throughout there are interviews with McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton (who hilariously recounts Harrison’s nonchalant, cavalier reaction to Clapton’s falling in love with Harrison’s then wife Pattie Boyd; an accounting that Boyd somewhat implies isn’t quite true), Eric Idle, percussionist Ray Cooper, Harrison’s son Dhani, and, most effectively, second wife Olivia Harrison, who, seemingly, gave Scorsese a free hand in excavating Harrison’s past.
The second half fares better than the first, if for no other reason than it focuses on the part of this life, post-Beatles, that hasn’t already been picked clean by every Beatle scavenger. Plus, quite frankly, is seems like Harrison turned into a much more interesting person the older he got.
There is a riveting interview with Phil Spector about the making of “All Things Must Pass” that is stunning for not only what the producer says, but for his manic energy, in light of his current circumstances.
Plus, we see his other interests, especially car racing, and his deep friendship with Scottish superstar driver Jackie Stewart. But most interestingly, in a way that the first half begins to explore as well, we follow Harrison’s spiritual journey. It’s a trek that guided his life and informed his decisions and, ultimately, provided great comfort to him and his family during his disease and death.
Olivia Harrison provides many of the most moving segments through her unflinching honesty, as she addresses the distance from which Harrison often operated. She brings up, seemingly unbidden, his infidelities and the pain they caused her.
Interestingly, while the documentary goes into great detail about the night that an attacker broke into Friar Park, Harrison's estate, and stabbed Harrison (Olivia’s account is harrowing) and the wretched reception to his 1974 “Dark Horse” tour, the film totally ignores another equally painful chapter in Harrison’s post-Beatles life: the plagiarism suit filed against Harrison, alleging that “My Sweet Lord” too closely resembled “He’s So Fine.” It was a landmark case (Harrison was ultimately found guilty of “subconscious” plagiarizing.)
“Material World” could have used some judicious editing, even though there remains a seemingly inexhaustible thirst for Harrison (and the Beatles) information. This will temporarily sate some fans, enlighten others, and, sadly, bore a few.