George Harrison - Living in the Material World
On Saturday December 8, Martin Scorsese's documentary on George Harrison, George Harrison: Living in the Material World will stream free to Facebook users. After debuting last year on HBO and seeing a home video release, it stands to find its largest audience through the stream. Despite this, it will polarize many without a second viewing. When the film premiered on HBO last year, I found myself in an unimaginable predicament- the film polarized me. Here is my favorite and the greatest living director doing a deep dive on a musician I love. My initial viewing was late at night and I felt the film jumped too much. It left me feeling more distant from the subject matter and I was not sure if there was any new ground uncovered. However, right before Christmas as I was finishing some year-end writing pieces, I turned the entire 4-hour documentary on as background noise. Slowly but surely, the laptop was pushed to the side as I felt I was having a discussion with George Harrison.
There is a distance upon the first viewing. You cannot quite put your finger on specifically who Harrison was. There is tons of interviews and footage, but they seemed to drill down into his music. Part of this is due to the intense documentation and thousands of books in existence on the Beatles and partially because the documentary (which runs nearly four hours) was split across two nights. However, on my second viewing where I watched the entire film in one four-hour sitting, I let my expectations fall to the floor and witnessed a mystically revealing and ample film. People may have to get past to grasp its immensity. This is not a chronological data dump. While it mostly begins with his birth, upbringing, the Beatles, solo career and ends with his death, the film is not your standard documentary fare. We do not hear a single note of Harrison's music after 1973. To the film's credit, I did not even fully realize this until someone pointed it out to me. There is no discussion of his Dark Horse records, his number-one single "Got My Mind Set On You" from 1987, the Traveling Wilburys or even his concert tour of Japan with Clapton in 1991. Instead after Scorsese captures his ascent to stardom, he turns the rock documentary on its head and takes us on the road less traveled where instead of studying his art, Scorsese studies the spiritual forces that drove him.
Expectations were high for this film since Scorsese hit one out of the park with No Direction Home his brilliant documentary about Bob Dylan's career between 1962 and 1966. This time around, there is no album-by-album dissection of his music. This may be off-putting for some, but in many ways is a film Harrison would have enjoyed. Scorsese does not highlight any post-1973 music in the film but the question arises whether we want to comprehend George Harrison as a man or a myth? Harrison (and his family who helped produce the film) wants you to understand the man. Once we get past the Beatles ascent, Scorsese lays the groundwork to take us not so much into Harrison's musical mind, but his spiritual one. This carries the film through the second half and allows Scorsese to disregard the later half of his music career and instead focus on how he worked every day to center himself. What differentiates Living in the Material World from the Beatles Anthology film from 1995 is this time around, the interviews are branched out to include many more people not interviews back in 1995. The majority of the first half deals with his time with the Beatles. There are illuminating current day interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann; the latter two have vivid stories to tell and bring in a new and fresh perspective to the band's time in Germany before their stars ascended. Harrison's son Dhani reads letters to various relatives in the 1960s, which are complimented by footage and pictures of the time and events. Eric Clapton gives some wonderful insight showing that even he looked up to him not in a manner of pop idol but as a man and friend. Joan Taylor (the wife of Beatles press officer Derek), gives us a first person perspective to trips and the aura of being around the Beatles at this time. So many documentaries find people in awe of their subjects or afraid to say a bad word, but Scorsese manages to get all of them to let their guard down to speak of the good, the bad and the ugly. It humanized Harrison in a way no book or music ever could. What I saw when watching the film were family and friends who miss the man, not for his celebrity but for his warmth. The film ends with the family discussing the last few years of his life. Olivia Harrison's interviews are particularly heartbreaking. She does not dish specifics, but you sense the profound love and purpose she gave Harrison over the course of her life. It was not perfect, but it feels weighty and this is what has stayed with me a year later.
The documentary comes in a variety of formats and a few companion pieces including a marvelous four-hundred page hardcover book and a ten-track CD entitled Early Outtakes Volume One The outtakes set is truly polarizing. While it houses ten songs released here for the first time, many are alternate and stripped cuts including "My Sweet Lord" and "All Things Must Pass", however, they don't warrant further listens. Rather than a standalone album, it feels incomplete. Because the songs are so proverbial, I wish they had opted to include more. Earlier this spring, Giles Martin (son of George) gave several key interviews outlining the process they went through uncovering all of these songs, to include a mere ten songs lasting thirty minutes seems like a lost opportunity. The Beatles Anthology series from 1995 and 1996 is indispensable because of the heft of material they released. Capital Records in the early 1980's had planned a single disc album of unreleased songs and outtakes and the Beatles joined to stop it from being released. They were right waiting for the time and place. If it had been released as a single LP, it would be confused with their other albums. The new Harrison album feels like a one way street that suddenly dead ends before you reach your destination. The CD is good but could have been more and the book houses several never seen before pictures. The good news is that they are all available separately. If you love coffee table books, I would recommend buying the hardcover version for $27, the BluRay for $18 and the outtakes CD for $10
One should not view a life as what one accomplished, but by how he treated those after he made his mark. George Harrison: Living in the Material World is not the film fans yearned for but it is probably the one needed. It may not provide minutiae of Harrison's music, but instead affords the viewer a picture of a faulted man who did his best to find inner peace in a world with far too much distortion. The lessons are simple, but heart-rending. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, Harrison's journey as a human radiates and serves as a reminder that there is greatness in all of us.
Film 3.5-Stars (***1/2)
Album: 2-stars (**)
Book: 4-Stars (****)
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
George Harrison - Living in the Material World