Those who know a fair amount about the Beatles will look at “Living in the Material World” and marvel at just how much ground Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison opus covers in 3 1/2 hours. But those of us who aren’t as familiar with the band’s most spiritual member are in for an unexpected treat: More than mere rock-doc hagiography, “Material World” reveals how a tortured millionaire struggled to tame his soul, understand life and ready himself for death. Sadly, sprocket-opera screenings appear to be the engrossing two-parter’s only bigscreen engagements before it premieres Oct. 5 on HBO.
Considering the involvement of George’s widow, Olivia Harrison (who also produced), and comments from those who knew him well, including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector, Klaus Voormann, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, it’s no surprise that Scorsese’s sources offer emotionally choked and overwhelmingly fond remembrances of the late Beatle. As Harrison himself advised in “The Answer’s at the End”: “Scan not a friend with a microscopic glass/You know his faults, now let the foibles pass.”
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Still, while “Material World” takes a generally respectful tone toward its subject, through the combined testimony of all these sources, a decidedly conflicted picture of Harrison emerges. In their words, he was “a red-blooded man” (McCartney) prone to “anger” (Starr) with “no filter” (Ono) and “a very extreme personality (that led him) very heavily into drugs” (Voormann). By acknowledging but not belaboring these faults, the film hints at what made Harrison such a restless individual — albeit primarily though euphemism, supported only once by visual evidence (when he threw a drink in a photographer’s face).
The first hour or so of the 94-minute Part I covers Harrison’s childhood and early days with the Beatles. Scorsese clearly assumes auds are already up to speed on Harrison and his collaborators, opening the film with testimony from intimate acquaintances who aren’t identified until nearly three hours in (including son Dhani and Handmade Films partner Ray Cooper) before blazing through the Beatles’ meteoric, decade-long existence.
Audiences of a certain age shouldn’t need hand-holding to understand the “Is God Dead?” cover of Time magazine or the significance of Harrison’s Bangladesh charity concerts, though the docu does no favors to neophytes for whom the title “Living in the Material World” is more likely to evoke Madonna than Harrison. Scorsese features a virtual slideshow of Astrid Kirchherr’s photos from the Beatles’ early days in Hamburg, Germany, but fails to identify Stuart Sutcliffe by anything more than his first name. It’s among the many small details omitted along the way. But opting not to mention that Sutcliffe served as the band’s first bass player before leaving the group, and then dying unexpectedly at age 21, undercuts the power of the subsequent portraits of a grief-stricken John and George — images that, in light of profound fear-of-death issues raised late in Part II, might have captured a key turning point in Harrison’s life (echoed five years later when manager Brian Epstein died).
Other visuals — a mind-boggling mix of formats, including hundreds of terrific photographs available in a companion coffee-table book — often beg for further context. Scorsese’s approach spells a complex connect-the-dots game for the uninitiated, though there’s plenty here to encourage further exploration — not least of which is the music, which sounds incredible in the film’s mix, even if the tracks have a nasty way of cutting off to dead silence just as they’re getting good. Editor David Tedeschi, who also assembled Scorsese’s comparably ambitious “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home,” organizes Harrison’s chronology into manageable chunks while juggling multiple arcs.
Clearly, fame transformed the four Liverpool kids. In a vintage television interview, Harrison explains, “By having money, we found that money wasn’t the answer.” And so begins a “journey inward,” as Starr describes it, that led Harrison to experiment with LSD, Eastern religion, meditation and Indian music. Each of those influences trickled into Harrison’s songwriting, which took on an evangelical quality as he tried to teach future generations how to live free of the assumptions he’d had to unlearn.
Later, an older-and-wiser Harrison reflects, “People say I’m the Beatle who changed the most, but to me, that’s what life’s about.” That ongoing transformation also makes Harrison the Beatle best suited to a portrait of this magnitude, not only for dramatic reasons, but also because his issues seem to run deepest.
When it comes to “Living in the Material World” or his similarly formatted Dylan doc, it’s hard to ascertain just how involved Scorsese is as director. Nearly all the interviews were conducted by Warren Zanes (though a phone call from Marty no doubt got them in the seat), and a small army of researchers dug up the staggering mix of archival material featured in the film (including homemovies shot by Harrison himself). Still, there’s no question the movie finds its footing just as Lennon begins bad-mouthing religion — a moment that must have struck a chord with the Catholic-raised helmer.
Part II picks up in 1970 just as the band is about to break up, and hits the key historical points along the way: Harrison’s solo albums, the Bangladesh benefit, his involvement with Monty Python and backing of “Life of Brian,” the creation of Handmade Films, his move to Friar Park, the formation of the Traveling Wilburys, his 1999 stabbing and eventual death from cancer. Still, these incidents would not be nearly so fascinating without the undercurrent of his search for faith.
In the last half hour, starting with Lennon’s assassination, we learn that Harrison spent much of his life practicing how to leave his body. Not everyone frets about death, but those who do face a daunting uphill journey en route to accepting their mortality. As “Living in the Material World” draws to a close, ending as countless musician biopics have before, Scorsese poignantly shows that Harrison left the world as he wanted: positive-minded, wiser and at peace. Now, through not only his music but also this thoughtful portrait of a lifelong seeker, part of that enlightenment can be ours.