Last autumn saw the tenth anniversary of former Beatle (and, er, Travelling Wilbury) George Harrison’s death. On the weekend that would have seen him celebrate his birthday, Louder Than War continues to celebrate him and his work with a review of Scorcese’s biopic Living in a Material World, which Liz from Back Street Indie caught last year.
Everyone has a favourite Beatle. I am a huge Beatles fan, and from a young age I knew, without question or doubt, that George Harrison was going to be my favourite. The first vinyl I ever discovered was The Beatles Help! amongst my parents record collection and I instantly declared that the first Beatle on the front cover, the one in the jaunty blue top hat – the one who looked part of, yet strangely unique from, the other four – was my favourite Beatle. I pulled the shiny rare first edition vinyl out of its original cover and placed it carefully on the turntable. I skipped to ‘You Like me Too Much’, George’s offering, and sang it over and over. And so it started. My lifelong love affair with all things George began and this autumn, many years since that first playing, I could hardly contain my excitement on hearing that the brilliant Martin Scorsese had finished his epic three and a half hour documentary on the late George Harrison.
The programme aired over two nights last week on BBC2 and is now available to buy on DVD. I was lucky enough to catch one of the first showings of Scorses’s Living in a Material World earlier this year. At just over three and a half hours, it does take a bit of effort to get through, even for the most avid fans. Yet, arguably, its length is entirely justified. It’s always aggrieved me for years that there has been such a lack of critical material on Harrison; one quick peruse through the film archives, the libraries or the music press reveals a gaping cultural black-hole when it comes to the so called “quiet” Beatle. In his documentary, Scorsese takes George firmly out of the formidable Lennon-McCartney shadows and presents a detailed picture of George’s achievements within the Beatles, his spiritual quest and of course his solo projects ”â both music and cinematic.
From the onset, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a traditional start-to-end cyclic account of Harrison’s life. Scorsese subverts this straight away by opening with some touching footage of Harrison near the end of his life. The footage is of a photographer trying to capture an image of George near some tulips in his garden. If ever a clip caught the essence of a man so beautifully, it is this one. George peeks out behind the tulips, clearly embarrassed at having his picture taken. He covers it well by making a fleeting joke with the photographer. He then comments on the tulips, linking them to natural beauty and spirituality. It’s perfect and rare footage of George that simultaneously captures his innate shyness alongside a mischievous humour and a passionate desire to be at one with the natural world. It was also footage of a man who seemed to be at peace with himself and life. You really do feel from the outset that this is going to be a very special documentary of George’s life.
Scorsese follows this up well with short, summative comments about George from a host of famous interviewees including his son Dhani and his close friend Eric Clapton. They are touching without being too overly sentimental or clichÃÂ©; they are succinct and to the point, like the man himself. The calm opening quickly subsides, however, and Scorsese busts the documentary open with a lightening quick sequence of vintage cinematic footage. We are hit with a cacophony of images reflecting the manic world Harrison was born into: we see the stills of the spitfires, the leftovers of Liverpool after the WW2 bombings, the subsequent street parties, the two-up-two-downs built from the ashes, the poverty, the hope, the art. The vignettes are visually captivating and the clever accompanying soundtrack reflect the sounds a young Harrison would have no doubt heard ”â especially sounds from that other famous George, the brilliant Mr. Formby, whom George (a passionate ukulele player) admired greatly. It’s a great opening that contextualises Harrison’s life perfectly.
Once the clips are over, the documentary starts to examine the quiet Beatle in painstaking detail, beginning with a series of new interviews. From these Scorsese seems to select as many differing views of Harrison as is possible; George is described variously as “sure of himself”Â, ”Ë”Âquiet”Â, “calm”Â, “angry”Â, “peaceful”Â and a “cocky kid.”Â To understand these multi-faceted descriptions, Scorsese goes back to Harrison’s roots in Liverpool, beginning with a new interview with Paul McCartney. He describes George as an “ordinary kid”Â who lived a Dickensian Liverpool existence, but one hungry for an exit, art being “a great golden vision”Â for Harrison, something completely at odds with the “usual”Â vocations followed by kids in the area. The anecdotes Beatles fans all know start to be recounted by Paul, such as George’s famous “interview”Â for the Beatles, but Scorsese adds new depth and tangibility to these stories through superimposing never before seen images of a young George in and around the back streets of Liverpool. When McCartney starts to describe how Harrison played the old blues, rock n roll song ‘Raunchy’ for his Beatles interview on the top of a Liverpool bus to John, Scorsese suddenly superimposes the original song over McCartney’s long-winded story, silencing his out completely in a clear directorial statement of intent; this is to be George’s story, and no one else’s. Viewers are left in no doubt that Harrison’s life portrayal is in the hands of one of the most influential Oscar winning filmmakers of the modern era and that embarrassing lack of critical material is well on its way to being corrected.
Clever little Scorsese tricks and nuances appear throughout, such as the moments where he films someone turning the pages of the dearly treasured Harrison family photo albums. The pictures are turned over so we can see the captions on the back of photos as if we were there turning the dusty pages and viewing them ourselves. Scorsese delves deep into personal family albums and the viewer is treated to pictures of a very young George; we see pictures of the angelic schoolboy right up to the leather-clad quiff-sporting teenager. And sure enough, then comes the sound of the screaming girls as we are capitulated into the frenzied Beatles story. Tt’s a formidable, fast-paced sequence that captivates, engages and surprises. The famous tale of the Beatles rise to fame is of course told in all its glory, but for once, it is told almost entirely through Harrison’s eyes. George’s solo songs in The Beatles are the ones Scorsese plays; the footage of the Beatles is well, just of George, the others seem invisible – George, for once, is centre stage. ‘Whilst My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Taxman’, ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ are the key songs in this documentary. Their meteoric rise to fame is told nicely through the many letters and postcards George wrote home to his parents. George describes events as diverse as taking a swim in Burt Lancaster’s pool to the time he punched an American cop who was a bit rough. Scorsese works hard to select rarer anecdotes, footage and songs that we may not have heard before, and they are genuinely captivating.
Other moments in the first part of the documentary that work especially well include some very personal, emotive anecdotes and photography from Astrid Kirchherr with whom the Beatles stayed with for a time whilst in Germany. Kirchherr’s photos in this section really do speak a thousand words and one of the most poignant for me was one Scorsese includes of John Lennon, in Stuart Sutcliffe’s room shortly after his death. John is visibly upset in the picture, yet stood knowingly at his side is a silent, supporting Harrison. “George brought a lot of peace to the band”Â, Kircherr said, acting as a confidant and buffer to Lennon and McCartney in their ever-competitive relationship. Scorsese candidly captures the vast isolation George felt in the band “don’t forget I spent two years in the back of a limousine with them [Lennon & McCartney]”Â, is the classic interview quote Scorsese chooses to play over images of George looking dejected and tired around the time of the Let it Be album sessions. A telling clip Scorsese includes from this period, and one that I had never seen before, is one of George desperately trying to give his opinion on how a riff should go. We then see a rather harsh McCartney, who is overpowering in the way he dismisses George idly and tells him to do “whatever”. Interestingly, George then went away and wrote ‘Something’, which Sinatra quite rightly described as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ followed, its genesis told well by Eric Clapton.
The second part of the documentary is entirely dedicated to Harrison’s spiritual quest, something which Scorsese believes gave him the strength to leave the Beatles. George’s dedication to his spirituality is explored in minute detail by Scorsese over a ninety minute period in this section and sadly, something is lost with the earlier, exciting pace of the film: story after story of spiritual journey and meditation are examined quite laboriously. The spiritual angle was always going to be the angle that Scorsese examined in detail; both men indeed went on that spiritual quest trying to find their own unique identities. Where Scorsese abandoned to find an identity, Harrison embraced, and Scorsese documents well how for George, spirituality and creativity were one and the same, coexisting together in some transcendental state. George’s skillful mastery of the sitar is given some new light as we get a much closer exploration of George’s time in India and the Middle East and his prowess as a musician is celebrated. Many interviewees in the clip believe Harrison was at his most creative and talented when in India. Whilst he abandoned the sitar in favour of his trusted guitar, his musical achievements during this period are examined closely by Scorsese: it’s a detailed section and one rarely covered in the music press.
The third and final chapter of the documentary picks up the pace after the somewhat slow second section. George’s courage to leave the Beatles is detailed via his candid diary entry “left the Beatles today.”Â Scorsese captures a beleaguered Harrison at breaking point through close up stills which show a man dejected; a man who despite all his own unique talent was never going to get a fair deal alongside the others. Scorsese focuses on George’s solo career in fine detail. He is portrayed by Scorsese as a perfect perfectionist; as Phil Spektor described, “imagine a perfectionist”Â¦ then go one beyond it”Â¦ that’s George”Â. Scorsese shows how George spent hours working on the harmonies for ‘My Sweet Lord’ only to abandon them all and start again. Footage of George perfecting his trademark slide guitar exemplify his dedication and it is telling today that that slide guitar is still instantly recognizable as uniquely Harrison. Scorsese also dedicates a significant amount of time to George’s own songwriting ability. Overshadowed and neglected in The Beatles, unusual one-off lyric sheets are shown to the audience; they reveal a meticulous wordsmith who created some of the finest imagery in music. Creations like ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Isn’t it a Pity’ are, Scorsese seems to conclude, songs that sum up the very essence of George as well as mankind. It is no coincidence that Scorsese details George’s successes alongside his near self-destruct moment when hooked on dugs and alcohol in the seventies. As well as showing all George’s celebrated gigs, the disastrous India charity gig is shown and painful footage of George hitting rock bottom is cast out for all to see. Sure enough, George’s subsequent recovery is examined but Scorsese seems determined to show the complexities of the artist. It’s unlike anything you will have watched on Harrison before simply because of its ability to tell the true Harrison story, with no sugar frosted coating.
Final highlights from the close of the documentary focus on George’s later projects such as his place in the Travelling Willburys and his own success in films, financing classics such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian (in which he has a cameo) and Mona Lisa. George’s love affair with motor racing is also covered and warm but again not overly sentimental quotes come form the likes of Jackie Stewart, a close personal friend of Harrison. There are times in this documentary when Scorsese seems a bit like an archaeologist intent on digging up as many hidden treasures as he can from the Harrison archive. It’s compelling viewing and every other minute of this staggering film throws up something new and exciting about Harrison. It’s a stunning documentary, and one that has been painstakingly well-researched and presented.
Living in a Material World is now available to buy on DVD.