George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Martin Scorsese’s 204-minute doc reveals the struggle between spirit and flesh in the most unlikely Beatle
Written by Chris Norris
Home video shows a cluster of tulips as loved ones speak of the missing auteur. Then intimacy turns to history with the drop of a needle. George Harrison’s majestic “All Things Must Pass” plays to an archival montage—Nazi planes bombing churches, families trudging through rubble, a Catholic baptism—and a slow pan across a family photo to the youngest smiling boy who led one of the century’s most public lives. The opening to George Harrison: Living in the Material World hits the same notes as the opening of Mean Streets because its subject is a Martin Scorsese hit parade: lower-class origins, Catholic upbringing, talent, discipline, dazzling achievement, and a struggle between the carnal and the divine. This film draws from the director’s core obsessions in ways 2005’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan could not. And a windfall of previously unseen material released by Olivia Harrison helped him build a story of terror, grief, sin, and transcendence. But the mere choice of “The Quiet One” as a narrative filter also enabled a minor miracle: taking personalities, events, and historical moments we know as well as the New Testament to tell a strikingly new Gospel According to George.
So new it often reads like historical fiction: the youngest member of a rising band tries his hand at songwriting, supposing if his two jackass bandmates can do it, anyone can. Said jackasses, Lennon and McCartney, end up outshined by wiser, funnier George; the Nazis defeat the Allies; and the hostile planet turns out to be Earth. This sense of inversion comes early with unseen footage from 1974: a giddy Harrison clambering over a desk to sign legal papers to terminate the Beatles. Images and memories to come give the many reasons why this man is smiling.
Paul and George meet in a school Paul recalls as being “Dickensian . . . Dickens even taught there—that’s how Dickensian it was.” Paul has his friend audition for John. Soon after, the hot-shot notices his elder’s instrument only has four strings. “I mean, John didn’t realize guitars have six,” says George, who taught John rather handy chords such as E and A, and had a lighter comic touch as well. George’s brothers establish as much with an anecdote that portrays young John less as cheeky lad than sociopath. This volatile core hit an early-Sixties Hamburg the film paints as Night of the Living Dead with blood-streaked bodies staggering through the Reeperbahn. Beatlemania itself looks a far cry from A Hard Day’s Night, as shattering screams accompany riot footage suggesting ’71 Belfast, and backstage shots show the four young inciters looking less than psyched. Images of moptop hijinks play to Harrison’s queasy late-Beatles “Blue Jay Way,” suggesting how early anxiety comes with this much fame.
Scorsese’s subtle camera movements turn many photos into film scenes, building tension or freezing a moment of stunning emotion. Photographer Astrid Kirchherr—the Beatles’s Hamburg muse and den mother—describes a scene just after Lennon’s close friend and bandmate Stu Sutcliffe died. John and George dropped by her place to see the garret where Sutcliffe painted. Astrid led them upstairs, started snapping, and asked George to stand beside seated John. The screen then fills with her black-and-white photo: the stone face and brimming eyes of the saddest Lennon we’ve ever seen; George beside him bearing a look of preternatural empathy. “He understood life and death,” Kirchherr says of George. “He brought balance to that group.” He was just 17.
It seems George brought more than balance. The quantum leap comes in ’62 when George Martin takes a reluctant meeting. “I didn’t know what to make of them,” he says, recalling an upolished band with no lead singer. After recording a few songs, Martin invited them into the control room. “I said, ‘Why don’t you just listen and tell me what you don’t like?,’” Martin recalls. George said, “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start,” a quip that Martin remembers terrifying Harrison’s bandmates and winning them a producer, who then grasped that this group’s star was the four all together (also see: invention of modern pop group).
The Beatles performance of Harrison’s breakthrough song, “If I Needed Someone,” is also the film’s first one in color, a Wizard of Oz moment that marks the arrival of George the artist. More items from the alternate Beatle history come quickly on its heels. Yoko Ono says it was George who suggested she and John make the White Album freak-out “Revolution No. 9,” having just recorded his own musique concrète for an experimental film. LSD’s significance starts shrinking the moment George tells a talk-show host that the Beatles tuned in and turned on via spiked coffee served by their dentist. This did set George on a path toward Indian music and meditation, hastened by a brief visit to Haight-Ashbury—where previously unreleased photos show his preacher-like figure collecting a trail of hippies, junkies, and glassy-eyed fans who showed him what dropping out looks like. New film and photos also reveal the depth of George’s studies with Ravi Shankar, which briefly brought two additional Beatles along for the ride. When John and Paul turned apostate, Harrison shuttled back and forth to India, and seeking the sacred and the profane, writing in a letter home, “Don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker because I haven’t. I love you both more than ever, so it can’t be all bad, can it?” A quick cut to a seedy nightlife scene with Harrison’s sticky “Savoy Truffle” frames this correspondence to recall one from another Scorsese film: “I hope this letter finds you well as it does me. I hope no one has died . . . Love, Travis.”
Interviewees from Phil Spector to Terry Gilliam to Scottish auto racer Jackie Stewart attest to the instincts and generosity the recovering Beatle brought to the rest of his life. Clearly, Scorsese’s tale of a lifelong war between spirit and flesh was hobbled by the legacy guardians he needed for access. His film does remind us that Harrison was an incredibly cool-looking rock star (who makes the band in early photos resemble the Clash), as well as talented, witty, compassionate—and no Charles Foster Kane. Olivia Harrison reveals “[George] did like women and women constantly liked him.” Ringo alludes to George’s “love, bag-of-beads personality and also the bag of . . . anger.” McCartney confides that Harrison “was a red-blooded man and was into things guys like.” Give or take a coke reference, this is about as close as we get to the material world that burdened George’s ascent.
In 1969, George returned from India with a new song, telling Ringo it was in “seven and a half.” Ringo replicates his nod in response: “He might as well have been speaking in Arabic.” The same year, a fledgling director trained his eyes and ears on Woodstock, the unofficial beginning to the end of an era, made official when the Beatles ceased to be. Forty-one years later, Harrison’s seven-and-a-half tune was the most downloaded original in iTunes’ Beatles catalogue. Now, “Here Comes the Sun” is even more audibly “a George song,” whose qualities are harder to parse than the others’ and even, in their way, more advanced. They were written by the delighted man we see signing a death warrant for the world’s best rock band, and who left the world in much the same way. “There was a profound experience,” Oliva Harrison says of her husband’s death. “Let’s just say you wouldn’t need to light the room if you filmed it.”
Chris Norris is a frequent contributor to Film Comment.
© 2011 by Chris Norris