George Harrison, dead now almost eleven years, has remained relatively unstudied — compared with, say, fellow Beatle John Lennon — despite the richness and depth Harrison contributed to the Beatles’ music, his significant post-Beatles work, and his generally fascinating life. Director Martin Scorsese has done his part to reduce this deficit in George Harrison: Living in the Material World, his 2011 documentary biography of the Beatle, shown on HBO last October and available on Blu-ray and DVD, or Amazon Instant Video.
The film is a treasure chest packed with previously unseen footage and enchanting recollections. Despite its 3-hour, 47-minute length, it is — like Harrison’s life — over far too soon.
Reconstructing the essence of a man from the pieces and the fragments he has left behind is a tall order. Scorsese fills it with choice gems, conventionally arranged in fairly chronological order. We do not, for example, see Ed Sullivan introducing “The Beatles!” We don’t see Mr. Sullivan at all. We do eventually see racing icon Jackie Stewart struggling to convey the depth of his bereavement over George Harrison’s death, and the depth of the human connection Harrison shared with so many diverse people.
Beginning with the post-World War II Teddy Boy and his turban hairstyle — a guitar player who at least knew guitars have six strings — the film soon finds young George Harrison and his Beatles bandmates in Hamburg, Germany. We meet artist-musician Klaus Voormann and photographer Astrid Kirchherr, and observe the band’s squalid quarters in what amounts to the broom closet of a porno theater. A number of Kirchherr’s excellent photos from that period are featured, including her stunning shot of Lennon and Harrison shortly after bandmate Stuart Sutcliffe‘s death. She talks about his maturity in this moment, despite his young age, and how his gentle sense of peace complemented the more volatile personalities of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Beatlemania gets a concise review, mostly through rare footage that shows a slightly rawer, more boisterous band than is usually recalled, and a bit of a recurring theme emerges — namely, that George Harrison had two sides to his personality. As Ringo Starr describes this, “He had the love, bag of beads personality, and the bag of anger.”
Meanwhile, Harrison is beginning to develop his songwriting talents alone, in the Lennon/McCartney shadow. He is also beginning to explore spirituality, having failed to find inner satisfaction in money and material things. Despite the band’s enormous success at an early age, he says, “We still lacked something, and that something is the thing that religion is trying to give to people.”
Joan Taylor, wife of journalist and Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, tells a glorious story about the couple’s inclusion in some LSD experimentation with John and George at Brian Epstein‘s housewarming party in Sussex. We see shots of Lennon’s Rolls Royce and Harrison’s Mini, both psychedelically painted, and hear about a night of bliss that ended with the party “sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.” As Harrison is later seen telling Dick Cavett, LSD gave him a “very concentrated version of the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”
It also left him with a peculiar lingering thought: “Yogis of the Himalayas.”
Eventually deciding that inner peace could be realized neither through the blind faith of his Roman Catholic upbringing nor the exotic chemicals of the late 1960s (he relates his disgust after finding only “a lot of bums” in Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love), Harrison learns Transcendental Meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Indian music from Ravi Shankar, whom he describes as “the first person who ever impressed me in my life.”
This interest in Eastern traditions was not applauded in the Western media. Harrison’s religious path was frequently dismissed as “mysticism,” and at one point he is seen getting into a heated exchange with a participant in a discussion on The Frost Programme, telling him, “the word ‘mysticism’ is just being arrived at through people’s ignorance.”
Eventually, of course, tensions caused the Beatles to go their separate ways. Although he desired this change, Harrison was also uncertain of how to go forward. It was Phil Spector who helped him assemble and produce his first solo album, All Things Must Pass. We hear from pianist Billy Preston how “My Sweet Lord” grew out of some gospel improvisation with Delaney & Bonnie, and that its nice, repetitious, hypnotic, mantra-like quality is similar to the kind of thing Harrison would chant to himself for days on end driving through Europe.
The documentary also includes a number of interview segments with George Harrison’s good friend Eric Clapton, for whom Harrison’s first wife, Pattie Boyd, eventually left Harrison, being moved to this decision by Clapton’s epic ode to her, “Layla.” Clapton concedes a certain amount of knavishness, identifying himself as the Lancelot in Harrison’s Camelot. Meanwhile, Harrison comes off outwardly as an extraordinarily gracious gentleman about the whole situation, but does not ignore the deep hurt later expressed in his lyrics.
It is made clear that George was not a complete innocent himself. As Paul McCartney puts it, “He was a guy.” Harrison’s second wife, Olivia, admits she had to deal with the fact that George “did like women and women did like him.” The secret to a long marriage, she explains, is “You don’t get divorced.”
After a cyclone and then human rights atrocities devastated Bangladesh in 1970-1971, Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh was the first superstar-gathering benefit concert of its kind, seeking to raise relief funds through not only two shows, but also a concert movie and a concert album. Harrison’s gentle friend Klaus Voorman also marks it as the first time Harrison ever stepped forward and spoke directly to his audience, a significant step. Veteran drummer Jim Keltner (who could challenge Ron Swanson for cool reserve) marvels at the galaxy of friends Harrison was connected to — including Alla Rakha, “the greatest tabla player who ever lived.”
One of the most intriguing presences in the film is not a person, but an estate. In 1970, George Harrison bought Friar Park, the run-down 120-room mansion and grounds which had earlier belonged to the eccentric Sir Frank Crisp. Harrison found encouragement and inspiration in the place’s whimsical design, and went to great lengths in rehabilitating it. An avid gardner and landscaper who believed in doing the work himself, Harrison was known as “Capability George.”
Not everything was so blissful, however. Harrison’s Dark Horse album was panned in Rolling Stone as “Transcendental mediocrity,” and he is seen struggling on that tour, both with his voice and, according to Klaus Voorman, with some backsliding into drug abuse.
Monty Python member Eric Idle tells the story of how, when Baron Delfont yanked funding for Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1978 at the last minute, George Harrison put Friar Park up as collateral and paid the four million to get the movie made because he wanted to see it that much.
Another interest of Harrison’s was car racing, and this led to his close friendship with former race driver and commentator Jackie Stewart, who suspects some similarity between the subtle, split-second adjustments a race driver must make and the finely tuned control a guitarist must have over his instrument.
And then there’s the Traveling Wilburys — the supergroup Harrison formed with Jeff Lyne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty. Petty not only relates the highly casual process by which the band came together and began making music, he also tells a hilarious story about George’s ministering to him as a ukulele evangelist — a man who loved ukuleles to the point of driving around with a trunk full of them.
Harrison’s second wife, Olivia Harrison, was the source for much of the rare material in Scorsese’s biography, and she also offers insights into the spiritual quest she shared with George. The main purpose of their practice, as she describes it, was to prepare for the moment of leaving one’s body. It was of the utmost importance to both of them that this transition be made in full awareness, and without fear.
This was not the kind of death John Lennon got to experience — and a similar violent attack might very well have killed George or Olivia or both after an intruder broke into their Friar Park home in 1999. In chilling detail, Olivia describes how she and George and both fought the attacker and both ended up in the hospital — she with head wounds and George stabbed, with a collapsed lung.
George’s only son, Dhani Harrison, is interspersed throughout the biography. He bears a strong resemblance to his dad as he tells how his own youthful rebelliousness manifested itself through his enrolling in a “semi-military school” and wearing an Air Force uniform. Nevertheless, they did achieve a deep bond.
After his throat cancer in 1997 was successfully treated, Harrison developed lung cancer in 2001. His final days are described by Olivia, by Eric Idle, and very poignantly by Ringo Starr.
There are some things I would have liked included in this film. For one, although a few images show George in what appear to be Hawaiian surroundings, no mention is made of his home at Nahiku, Hawaii or the time he spent there. Neither is anything said about his two-week, 1963 visit to his sister in southern Illinois where he bought a Rickenbacker guitar. No mention is made of the plagiarism suit over “My Sweet Lord.” Very few archival comments from John Lennon are used.
Nevertheless, George Harrison: Living in the Material World is an outstanding collection of film and video clips, interviews, photos, demo tapes, diary entries, letters and artwork. The film is beautifully assembled, and ultimately a very touching portrait of an extraordinary human being. Moments from this movie will stay with me for a long time — particularly George’s perspective on change:
Everybody is so limited, and so really useless when you think about the limitations on yourself. And the whole thing is to change — try and make everything better and better. And that’s what the physical world is about, is change.
I rate it four out of four stars.