In his post-Beatles years, George Harrison, the so-called “quiet” Beatle, was anything but quiet. Harrison immediately set out on a solo career in which he forged a voice of his own. Pursuing numerous other passions and living a life like no one else, Harrison was as exciting off the stage as it was on it, up until his tragically premature death from cancer in late November 2001.
We are drowning in a sea of Beatles books and documentaries, many official, many unofficial. As John Lennon and Paul McCartney were largely the public eye of the band, naturally they get the most emphasis in such material. Upon hearing that legendary film director Martin Scorsese was going to do a documentary covering Harrison’s life, this fan knew he had to track it down and watch it.
Living in the Material World is divided into two parts, and is an official documentary sanctioned by Harrison’s widow Olivia and son Dhani. Largely arranged chronologically, the feature follows Harrison’s youth as an up and coming musician, his rise to fame with The Beatles, his subsequent solo career and other musical projects, and his latter years. Throughout the documentary, a number of the people who knew George best and were influenced by him are interviewed, both via archival clips and newly filmed footage. Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Terry Gilliam, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Eric Idle, Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voorman, and several others voice their memories of Harrison.
This documentary clocks in at nearly three and a half hours total time for both parts. That is certainly a great length of time. It absolutely makes for ample time to tell Harrison’s story, but in the wrong hands something that long could come off as tedious and uninteresting. Fortunately, when you have the cooperation of the Harrison Family, and Martin Scorsese sitting in the director’s chair, you have little to worry about. Living in the Material World is not a perfect documentary, but given the material and the personnel available, it represents the closest we are ever likely to get to a “perfect” George Harrison documentary.
The biggest positive here is the sheer magnitude of the people involved. Harrison touched many lives, and it shows in every frame of this doc. From Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr recounting their memories of playing alongside Harrison, to Eric Idle’s stories of Harrison setting up a film company to finance the Monty Python’s infamous Life of Brian, you will be thoroughly entertained by the stories that are told here. Even the die-hard fans who have read countless books on Harrison and watched older docs will learn or experience something new here. While I would not say that the documentary leaves no stone unturned, the wealth of information and stories to be had here is staggering.
Martin Scorsese’s name being attached to the project carries a lot of weight. For half a century, he has been one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, whether directing a crime drama or a concert feature; his credits with the latter include having worked as an editor on the original Woodstock film, and The Band’s legendary The Last Waltz. If you have watched films like Goodfellas or Casino, you know the appreciation that he has of classic rock and pop music, due to the sheer dearth of it contained in the soundtracks for those respective movies (Harrison’s “What is Life” was actually featured prominently in a scene of Goodfellas). On both ends of the spectrum, Scorsese is always a success story. Nowhere is that truer in the music half than Living in the Material World.
The tone of the documentary fluctuates from emotional and dramatic to lighthearted and comical, depending upon what the content being represented requires. Yet the documentary never feels terribly uneven or paced poorly; no simple task given the three hour plus length.
Okay, as much as I love George Harrison and this documentary at large, the feature is not perfect. Entire eras of his career and major songwriting contributions are ignored (I will not go into specifics, but fans who know his discography will pick up on this, particularly in the doc’s latter half). The other issue is that the doc, apparently, expects its audience to already have some knowledge of Harrison’s life and story. Sure, you know who Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono are. But what about Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr? Some of these personalities are flung on the audience rather quickly, and it is never really explained in depth who they are. That is not to say you will not enjoy this documentary, but you may want to research a few of these names and get their basic history ahead of time, as well as Harrison’s discography since a good portion of it is ignored here.
Should you see Living in the Material World? If you are a George Harrison/Beatles fan, I can proudly proclaim this Scorsese-directed doc essential viewing. Shortcomings are few and far between, and rock and roll fans are bound to enjoy what they experience and learn here. Highly recommended!
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