After the Beatles dissolved their partnership in 1970, “Quiet Beatle” George Harrison could finally stand on his own artistically and personally. Throughout his life, he was sometimes a study in contradictions: while he immersed himself in spirituality, he occasionally used drugs, and struggled with marital fidelity. He celebrated simple pleasures such as gardening, yet remained fascinated with motor racing and lived at a lavish estate. While George came across as extremely serious and shy in interviews, he reveled in absurd humor and funded Monty Python's controversial film Life of Brian. Any endeavor to capture this complex, ingenious artist is daunting, but director Martin Scorsese took on the challenge in the 2011 documentary Living in the Material World. Newly released on DVD, the film attempts to establish a three-dimensional portrait of the artist; while it falls short of this goal, it still serves as a riveting examination of a fascinating life.
Scorsese wisely chooses to weave in archival footage of George, allowing him to tells his own story as much as possible. Otherwise new interviews with friends and family, including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, his first wife Patti Boyd, Harrison's widow Olivia, their son Dhani, and friends such as Monty Python's Eric Idle and racing legend Jackie Stewart lend their own perspectives. Hardcore Beatles fans may be disappointed in the Beatles section of the film, as the narrative skips over such details as how the band struggled before being tapped to play Hamburg clubs. The movie suggests that the band simply moved from playing small Liverpool gigs to joining fellow Merseyside groups in Hamburg, which is untrue. His transition from a relatively naïve boy to a more jaded man while in Germany barely rates a mention. Living in the Material World also fails to capture his emergence as a talented songwriter, not including key tracks such as “Taxman.”
The second “act” of the film, the post-Beatle years, chiefly concentrates on All Things Must Pass (featuring an interview with a somewhat coherent Phil Spector) and his spiritual transformation. Curiously omitted are important events such as the “My Sweet Lord” plagiarism suit, his tense relationship with John Lennon (as evidenced by George's autobiography I Me Mine), and his huge chart comeback with 1987's Cloud Nine. It would have been interesting to hear from more musicians who worked with him on such underrated discs as 33 1/3, and to learn from Dhani about how he finished what would become George's last release, Brainwashed. As a Beatle and a solo artist, George's guitar-playing style has influenced generations of musicians, and the film could have examined this topic further.
Despite these flaws, Living in the Material World provides a general overview of George's life, or at least as much as can be packed into 210 minutes. Rare home video provides glimpses into his little-seen private life, particularly clowning around with Beatles bandmates or “interviewing” friends and family while wielding his video camera. The most poignant moments in the film come when Olivia recounts the horrifying night a home intruder attacked the couple and stabbed George; 1999 news reports clearly downplayed how close both of them came to being killed. Ringo Starr describes the last time he saw George before he passed away in 2001. Wiping away tears, Starr tells how he had to leave George's bedside to tend to his daughter, who at the time had a brain tumor. Weakly, George lifted his head and said “want me to come with you?” Voice shaking, Starr then exclaims, “it's like Barbara fucking Walters in here,” apparently embarrassed by his emotions.
Scorsese took on an impossible task: trying to condense such an intricate life into a relatively short documentary. To his credit, he does not portray George as a saint, with people discussing his drug use and infidelities. But overall Living in the Material World serves as a loving tribute to a unique talent that sometimes did not receive his just due. Casual fans will enjoy learning more about the so-called “Quiet Beatle,” while longtime fans may find disappointing gaps in the narrative. However, this is thus far the only film dedicated to George Harrison, and that alone earns it a place in any Beatles and George fan's collection.