There are few American directors who have put spirituality and the quest for redemption as front and center in their work as Martin Scorsese. With this in mind, it's easy to see why he was drawn to George Harrison as a documentary subject. The quiet Beatle fell into the excesses that would be expected for anyone who earns unimaginable fame and fortune when they're just barely out of their teens, but he was also genuinely interested in attaining spiritual purity. Scorsese uses this quest as the motif for his lengthy documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, turning the entire film into a tribute to a man who both created a world of extensive material wealth for himself, and who attempted to transcend it in his death.
Anyone with an interest in Beatles history needs to see this, because Scorsese had access to a wealth of previously unreleased footage; some of it -- like Harrison in the 1970s watching a clip of the young Fab Four performing "That Boy" and not being able to keep from smiling warmly and singing along -- make it clear that these were just four guys who had the right talents, the right chemistry, and hit the public at the right time. The Beatles story has been told so many times that Scorsese doesn't feel the need to be exhaustive about their entire career: He picks and chooses the periods that affected Harrison's journey the most. The movie focuses a great deal of time on their days in Hamburg, where they played for hours at a time in a rough-and-tumble city full of drugs, prostitutes, strippers, and sailors with money to burn. There's a great quote from Harrison about this period to the effect that it was quite a lesson for a 17-year-old kid to be exposed to those sights. Photographer Astrid Kirchherr and artist Klaus Voormann also offer a number of intimate insights into this formative period for Harrison and the band.
After the burst of Beatlemania, and a number of very funny clips of Harrison at various press conferences, Scorsese gets around to introducing the major theme of the film -- Harrison's spiritual quest. And he does it slyly, spending a few minutes on the infamous furor that flared up when John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. This sequence is scored to Harrison's "If I Needed Someone," and this is the first of many instances throughout the movie where Scorsese gets us to contemplate the possible religious meanings in Harrison's songs, even the ones that seem like innocuous, pretty ballads.
We are treated to stories about his generosity, as well as his prickly sense of humor and his steely resolve (including his dismissal of music producer George Martin's suggestions in the studio), with some of the best anecdotes coming from Harrison's longtime friend Eric Clapton. Clapton talks with remarkable intimacy about his jealousy of Harrison's massive success, and Harrison's jealousy of Clapton's artistic freedom. Their bond is deep enough that years later, when Clapton marries Harrison's ex-wife Patti, it doesn't seem to do any damage at all to their friendship. His interviews help give us a side of Harrison that isn't usually discussed.
But the best interviewee, the one person who seemed to truly understand Harrison's earnest need to seek out the divine as well as his inevitable desire for earthly pleasures, is his second wife Olivia. She tells stories about their time together, including one early in their relationship in which he's smugly passing judgment on the books she's reading. She makes him sound like a difficult person to be around some of the time, but it's also readily apparent that she loved him thoroughly. Between her recollection of his final moments, and Ringo Starr's heartbreaking tale of the last conversation he had with his old friend, it's impossible not to be moved by the film's final 20 minutes, even if the preceding hour leans a little too heavily on pedestrian live footage of Harrison on a tour that was infamously savaged by critics.
What comes through in the end is a tribute to a man who, by all accounts, succeeded in his spiritual journey, but at some level it's an incomplete portrait. As stated earlier, the section of the movie devoted to the Beatles is far from exhaustive, since Scorsese assumes you know the story already -- a fact that stands in stark contrast to his superb Bob Dylan documentary, which offered a nearly scholarly assessment of Dylan's life through 1966. And it's far from a definitive biography of Harrison: It would seem he did nothing between 1975 and 1988, when he recorded an album with the Traveling Wilburys -- a section of his life that inspires Tom Petty to share a couple of hilarious anecdotes, as well as a poignant one about the phone call he got from Harrison when Roy Orbison died.
And even the title of the movie, Living in the Material World, turns out to be a piece of misdirection, for although the movie is certainly about his life, it also dwells on his death. This is appropriate, for Harrison certainly was obsessed with the topic; he wanted to die in the best possible way -- that was the reason for all of his metaphysical learning. This movie would be morbid, or a romanticizing of death, if the director were a young man. But Scorsese was born five months before Harrison, and it's hard to escape the feeling that Scorsese wanted to make the movie in order to get closer to what he thinks of as Harrison's achievements in this regard. It's appealing to believe that you can die with dignity and grace, and that you do go on to something better. The movie resonates because for all of Harrison's flaws, Scorsese believes he accomplished his most-important goal.