Have you seen Judge Erich Asperschlager, crawling in the dirt?
"If someone said to you 'Okay, you can go through your life and you can have everything in five lifetimes, or you can have a really intense one'…he would have said 'Give me the one. I'm not coming back here.'"
As one-fourth of The Beatles, George Harrison will always have a spot in the pantheon of musical fame. Within the group itself, though, he falls a distant third in popularity behind John and Paul. As the group's main songwriters and self-appointed leaders, Lennon and McCartney are the focus of any number of documentaries. Their dynamic and dysfunctional relationship is the stuff of pop legend. It's no wonder they get more press than the so-called "quiet Beatle." Even poor Ringo seems to have greater mindshare for his supposed musical shortcomings. It's a shame, because although Harrison shared his bandmates' talents, vices, and fame, he approached life in a different way—a man out of step with the world around him, searching for a more meaningful existence. Martin Scorcese gives us a window into Harrison's musical and spiritual journey in his latest documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World.
Facts of the Case
Named after his 1973 album, Living in the Material World originally aired in two parts on HBO. It presents George Harrison's life and music as a three and a half hour collection of snapshots, home video footage, and interviews both new and archival with friends and contemporaries including Klaus Voormann, George Martin, Paul and Ringo, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar, Eric Idle, Phil Spector, Terry Gilliam, and Harrison himself.
Scorcese's freeform approach to Living in the Material World makes it feel more like thumbing through a scrapbook than watching a traditional biography. The director wisely avoids getting bogged down in Harrison's childhood, picking up his story when he meets Paul and John. From there, the film moves through Hamburg, Germany—where The Beatles were born out of sweat and long hours playing in the seedy Reeperbahn district—on to the crush of fame and endless touring. It was a life lived in cars, hotel rooms, and deafening concert halls. As the group dealt with the pressures of fame, its individual members formed an internal hierarchy. Paul and John pushed their way to the front, while George stepped back. Over time, George began writing his own songs, developing beyond the simple structure of "Don't Bother Me" to more inventive songs like "If I Needed Someone" and the political "Taxman."
Harrison's music and personal life took a turn after meeting sitar master Ravi Shankar, who introduced him to Indian music, culture, and religion. George began a spiritual search, traveling to India and reading a variety of holy texts. He gave up LSD in favor of meditation, and by the mid-'60s, his music had begun to incorporate Indian instruments and rhythms. The rest of The Beatles joined him for a while, studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After a while, though, John, Paul, and Ringo fell away, leaving George alone on his spiritual path. That disconnect, along with other existing tensions, led to the break-up of the world's biggest band.
After the Beatles' dissolution, they all took on solo projects. The making of All Things Must Pass is the closest that Living in the Material World comes to a standard music documentary, spending time on the songwriting and recording process of its biggest tunes. Scorcese doesn't linger at the mixing board too long, though. Harrison's album becomes a vantage point from which to view major changes in his life, including buying and restoring Friar Park manor and his divorce to Patty Boyd, who left him for pal Eric Clapton.
What followed in George's life may not be as storied as Paul, as tragic as John, or as maligned as Ringo, but Scorcese paints an inspiring and sympathetic portrait of the forgotten Beatle. Perhaps the biggest moment of Harrison's later career was The Concert for Bangladesh. What comes through in this charity concert, as it does in the rest of his life, is George's humanity. He may have suffered from the same addictions and proclivities as his rock contemporaries, but he found a way to live outside of himself. Through Hinduism and meditation, Harrison tried to escape his own ego and live a fuller life. He used his fortune to help people he admired. He supported humanitarian efforts. He introduced Indian musicians to Western audiences. He even created HandMade Films as a way to bankroll the controversial Monty Python's Life of Brian.
Although Scorcese doesn't approach Living in the Material World with any obvious agenda, it is an affectionate biography. Don't go into this film expecting a tell-all. Interviews with Harrison's wife Olivia, who has a producer credit on the film, are the core of its second half. She doesn't cover up for her husband's mistakes, when she talks about his affairs it's to explain why their marriage lasted. Scorcese isn't interested in gossip, leaving the sordid details to lesser biographies. He's interested in what really drove George Harrison—in the dichotomy between the man of peace and the man of anger. A man who fought personal demons through spiritual enlightenment. A talented and passionate musician who made the music he wanted with the people he loved, fighting off an armed attacker in his own home in 1999 only to lose a battle with cancer in 2001.
Although Living in the Material World is comprised of footage of varying quality, it's a striking film. The beauty of the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer comes from the way Scorcese selects and presents the rare photos and home footage—much of it filmed by video enthusiast Harrison himself. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track is well-balanced and clear for the age of the source material. The soundscape really opens up during the many musical cues, with a soundtrack filled with Harrison songs, including demos and live recordings.
Living in the Material World is light on extras, with only about 17 minutes of deleted scenes, all on disc 2:
• "Paul McCartney" (2:19) An extra interview with Paul, who tells the story of a boyhood adventure to Wales he took with George.
• "Here Comes the Sun" (2:34) George Martin and Harrison's son Dhani sit down at the mixing board to break down the vocal, guitar, and orchestration of George's classic song.
• "Damon Hill" (4:28) The race car driver talks about Harrison's enthusiasm for racing, including home video footage that George filmed at the World Championships in Australia.
• "Jeff Lynne" (2:51) Lynne talks about meeting George at Friar Park to discuss joining the Traveling Wilburys.
• "Dispute and Violence" (5:15) Live performance of the song by Shankar Family & Friends, with Harrison.
George Harrison joins The Band, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones as the latest musician to get the Martin Scorcese treatment. If Harrison doesn't seem like the most obvious choice for an in-depth film biography, that's because we haven't been treated to one before. George Harrison: Living in the Material World covers well-worn Beatles territory, but does so from George's perspective. As a result, Scorcese shows us new things about the world's most famous rock band, then goes on to make a case for not only Harrison's unique talents, but also his legacy. If the documentary is at times too effusive in praise of its subject, at least it matches the passions that pushed George Harrison to live this life to the fullest.
It isn't a pity. Not guilty.
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