Martin Scorsese’s moving documentary on The Beatles guitarist, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011), succeeds on a number of levels. Combining interviews with archive footage, snapshots of George and his music, Scorsese creates a portrait of a man full of contradictions. George’s wife Olivia (who also co-produced the film) describes how “He had karma to work out. And he wasn’t going to come back and be bad, he was going to be good and bad and loving and angry and everything all at once.”
It was these many contradictions that caused George to fluctuate between periods of drug-taking and intense meditation. As one contributor remarks, his spiritual practice was a search for the truth and for peace of mind and was an attempt to replace the chemical high he experienced when taking LSD.
Living in the Material World is clearly structured in two parts. The first is mainly taken up with George’s time with The Beatles. Through a careful selection of clips, Scorsese captures the camaraderie between the Fab Four right up to their break-up and the seminal moment when George’s argument with Paul (over artistic differences) at Abbey Road Studios is captured on film. It is clear that this was the beginning of the end for The Beatles, and yet George’s friendship with John and Ringo endured. Despite their uneasy relationship in later years, Paul generously attributes the success of And I Love Her to George’s guitar riffs.
Part two of Living in the Material World focuses upon Georges’ solo career, including the release of his triple album All Things Must Pass (produced by Phil Spector) and the surprise success of his single My Sweet Lord, his deepening friendship with Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, the concert for Bangladesh to provide humanitarian relief and his marriage to Olivia.
In 1978, George co-founded HandMade Films in order to help his Monty Python friends make Life of Brian (1979). Its success was replicated with several landmark films including Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986) and Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987). A decade later, George formed the band the Travelling Wilburys with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, and Scorsese includes some interesting footage of the band rehearsing and recording – they went on to produce two successful albums.
Some of the most moving observations come from friends – racing driver Jackie Stewart and musician Ray Cooper (in tears at the beginning) – are especially memorable. There are also some candid interviews with George’s lifelong friend Eric Clapton, who fell in love with and later married George’s first wife Pattie Boyd, and Olivia, who hints at George’s affairs during their own long marriage.
It’s no mean feat to have assembled such a lucid biography from hours of footage. Living in the Material World skims over George’s fight with cancer, yet Olivia provides a fascinating (and terrifying) description of their fight with an intruder, at the time George was being treated, which resulted in him being stabbed. Olivia also talks frankly about how George’s spiritualism was always a preparation for death. When the end finally came in 2001, she describes how the room was filled with light, suggesting that the iconic musician died with the same spiritual intensity as he had lived.