Review – George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

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I have been a Beatles fan most of my life and over the years I’ve found the most intriguing personality of the quartet to be George Harrison. Sure, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were more talented and integral members of the band, but their music and lives have been covered in such detail s there doesn’t seem to be much more one can know about them. As for Ringo Starr, not only is he the least significant band member musically but his uncomplicated ‘what you see is what you get’ personality suggests his is a persona that doesn’t require further investigation.

But Harrison is another matter. Not only because his talents were largely overwhelmed and overlooked due to Lennon and McCartney while in The Beatles (and perhaps post-Beatles in different ways) but because he always seemed a personality full of mystery and contradictions. While he was generally known as the ‘quiet Beatle’ who was considered the most contemplative of the group, there were enough examples of him being quite an intense, even volatile personality. To use a more specific example it seemed bizarre how someone defined by spirituality and search for inner peace would be such a major fan of what would appear to be the antithesis of those concepts,  Formula 1 racing.

Above all else, Harrison in interviews over the years always came across as a thoughtful and perceptive personality (probably the most interesting of the Beatles imo) which made me seek to learn more about him.  I read a biography of Harrison by Joshua Greene earlier this year which was pretty good and provided some insight into him. But I hungered for more so when it was revealed Martin Scorsese’s TV documentary on Harrison ‘Living in the Material World’ was getting a brief cinema release in Australia, I jumped at the chance to see it.

Unfortunately, while there numerous pleasures to be had from LITMW and was glad I saw it, I had a feeling of disappointment by the end.

Covering Harrison’s life in largely chronological order, LITMW has a good beginning with friends and family showing how much his absence has impacted on them. But it falls away once it begins on the Beatles period, mainly because it falls into the trap of not being a documentary about George but the Beatles as a group, and on that level it feels like a pale imitation of The Beatles Anthology 1990s documentary. At times, it almost feels as if Harrison is a periphery figure in his own documentary!

The documentary does pick up once it moves to Harrison’s post-Beatles career. The section covering his debut solo album ‘All Things Must Pass’ is particularly compelling as it illustrates someone -his talents suffocated for years in the Beatles environment – bursting out with a fountain of individual compositions that he’d been stockpiling for years. Seeing the dedication and passion Harrison devoted to the project, it seemed impossible to think the album wouldn’t be anything but a critical and commercial triumph.

Also, the final years of his life are covered effectively. The 1999 incident where a crazed man invaded his home and stabbed him is covered in graphic detail. This sounds rather ghoulish to focus on but it conveys Harrison’s personality, humour and beliefs quite effectively.

But even in the post-Beatles section, the documentary frustrates. Despite being over 200 minutes in length, Harrison’s post-mid 1970s solo music work is totally ignored, including his successful ‘comeback’ 1987 album ‘Cloud Nine’. Even more bafflingly, the successful copyright infringement lawsuit against his hit single ‘My Sweet Lord’ isn’t even mentioned. In a documentary lasting over 200 minutes, such gaps shouldn’t have occurred.

But most frustrating of all in LITMW is that it doesn’t attempt to probe at the contradictions and mysteries present in Harrison’s persona that help make him such a fascinating subject. For example, the general perception on Harrison and drugs is that he largely gave it up in the late 1960s and instead sought out a higher state of being through a spiritual and religious search for truth (something implied in an excerpt from a Harrison interview in LITMW). Yet, Klaus Voorman (a friend of the Beatles since they were in Germany in early 1960s) is fairly explicit in saying that Harrison was getting derailed by drug usage from the early to mid 1970s. Yet, no other mention or investigation is made of this claim elsewhere in the documentary.

That is a constant frustration with LITMW  – things are hinted at with Harrison’s character but never really probed. On some occasions we get an account of someone who was peaceful with his life, on others someone who was in a regular state of agitation. An example being how we get two different accounts of how he handled the end of his marriage to first wife Patti. Disappointingly, the film probably provides less insight into Harrison’s persona than Green’s biography did.

In terms of style, the documentary is unusual in that it has no narration and no attempts to put a biographical timeline on proceedings. This is a positive in that it has a fluid, languid style with its own character which makes it more enjoyable to experience than the standard doco. On the other hand the lack of biographical information means that viewers need to have a deep knowledge of Harrison’s career to fully appreciate the events covered. If you’re a person with limited knowledge of Harrison or the Beatles and want to understand their significance, this isn’t the place to start.

Harrison’s passion in music and involvement in movie production (without him ‘Life of Brian’ wouldn’t have got made) mean that he ‘talking heads’ include not only friends, family and the surviving Beatles, but racing car drivers and members of Monty Python. Standouts are Harrison’s wife Olivia who is tactful and moving in her summation of his final years. As well, despite appearing only briefly, racing car driver Jackie Stewart is notable, particularly as he provides insight into how someone like Harrison would love motor car racing.

While there are many problems with this doco, I shouldn’t be too down on it as there is much to enjoy from it. It is well-made, with an amazing array of footage from the era (much of which I hadn’t seen before). And of course, there is the pleasure of listening to Harrison’s songs, which Scorsese wisely gives them plenty of time to be heard. For Beatles fans it’s definitely worth watching.

But as a portrait of Harrison, this could’ve and should’ve been better. My favourite moment in the doco is when we see a picture of John Lennon sitting in the studio shortly after the death of former Beatle and friend Stu Sutcliffe worked in. The look of vulnerability and devastation isn’t something I’d ever seen before in the usually confident and cocky persona of Lennon.

It’s a great moment, but when the best part of a documentary about Harrison centres on John Lennon, it suggests not everything has worked.

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