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'George Harrison: Living in the Material World' doesn't always penetrate the quiet Beatle, but Martin Scorsese's two-part HBO documentary is a fab nostalgia trip

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(Apple Corps Ltd/Courtesy of HBO)

It can be a special pleasure to see a documentary about a subject you already know like family. (What you want, of course, is for the movie to take you closer still.) Back in 2005, when Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan played in two parts on PBS, I sat down to watch it thinking that I already knew more than enough about Bob Dylan (if that’s even possible). The movie was such a revelation, however, that by the time it was over, I felt I knew – really knew – Bob Dylan for maybe the first time. Taking a single year in Dylan’s career (the one where he transitioned from acoustic/folk/protest music into something wild and electric and revolutionary) and holding it up to the light for nearly four hours, Scorsese achieved something majestic in its obsession. It was like a Ken Burns film that shook its hips, an intimate talking-head biography that cast the grand shadow of a folk-pop symphony.

So when I sat down to watch George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Scorsese’s two-part, 208-minute documentary about the life and music of the most reticent, mystical, and in many ways mysterious Beatle (the film airs tonight and tomorrow on HBO), I admit that my expectations were more or less off the charts. I wanted the movie to do for Harrison what No Direction Home did for Dylan: to connect, in an astonishing and rapturous way, with the glory of his music – and also to let you read the man like a novel. But Living in the Material World is a very different movie from No Direction Home. It’s poppier and quicker, more impressionistic and less introspective, made with a rhythmic high dazzle that is very Marty, and with a reverence for its subject that’s so pronounced that, I have to say, the reverence occasionally gets in the way of seeing Harrison as deeply as we might want to. I enjoyed every moment of Living in the Material World, and loved parts of it a great deal, but the movie, in the end, isn’t a revelation. It’s a seductive and moving scrapbook made with an outward artistry and an inward conventionality.

Scorsese obviously knew that the Beatles, as a subject, had already been done to death, yet he’s such a dynamic filmmaker that his treatment of the band’s early years is marvelous. Using a wealth of photographs and home-movie footage that have never been seen before (much of it culled from Harrison’s private collection), and scrupulously avoiding the thousands of images that we have seen, Scorsese rebuilds the story of the Fab Four from the ground up. He creates snapshot-and-music montages that leap and dance right off the screen, taking us into the grimy carnival nightworld of Hamburg, where the band first found its rockin’ Teddy Boy–gone–teddy bear identity, and then into backstage views of Beatlemania that show us the four lads’ intense and often tender private camaraderie. If John and Paul were the ringleaders, and Ringo the mascot, then George, dutiful and bushy-tailed, laying in his ringingly engineered guitar lines, was the kid brother along for the ride. There are a lot of shots that capture how happy he was to be there. Interviews with the Beatles’ collaborator comrades – the early-’60s German scenester Klaus Voorman and his photographer girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr, who shot many of these images – only add to the luster of a tale that Scorsese, if he can’t quite make it new again, invites us to see through newly bedazzled eyes.

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At one point, he showcases the first song that George ever wrote for the Beatles, “Don’t Bother Me,” which in its acerbic minor-key shrug was already quintessentially Harrisonian. I figured the movie would proceed to build on that, showing us Harrison’s development as a songwriter (and, of course, his perpetual fight to squeeze one or two of those cuts onto each of the Beatles’ albums). But as soon as the Beatles stop touring, Scorsese starts to skip around in time, and a lot of his choices, frankly, struck me as a bit skittish and arbitrary. For a while, George’s songwriting kind of gets left in the dust. (How could Scorsese have left out the lyrical, lilting leap he took with “I Need You”?) The grand theme of the movie will be George’s mystical side – his immersion in krishna consciousness, as introduced to him through the music and gurus of India. Yet even though the movie amply documents George’s friendship with the sitar master Ravi Shankar, it never slows down enough to chart how, psychologically and emotionally, the spark of Hindu religious mysticism was first ignited in a dour working-class Catholic kid from Liverpool. From almost the start, Living in the Material World is a bit googly-eyed about George Harrison’s raised consciousness. It treats “Within You Without You,” his repetitive sitar-drone epic on Sgt. Pepper, as some sort of rock-raga epiphany – but when I was a kid, wearing out my copy of Sgt. Pepper, I remember that “Within You Without You” was a song that you always wished would end. (It was like “Blue Jay Way,” only with incense.)

Early on, Ringo, interviewed for the film, explains with a knowing chuckle that “George had two incredibly separate personalities. He had the bag of love-beads personality, and the bag of anger.” He’s saying, basically, that George had a duality to him (as so many of us do), and that he may on some level have been a fractured soul. That’s exactly the sort of insight we want to see filled in. But the movie gives that angry, scathing, I-hate-the-taxman side of George Harrison pretty short shrift. And in doing so, it misses, I think, a chance to really crack him open psychologically – to show us how his desire for transcendence was, in some way, a reaction to his own worldly nature. (It also grew out of his desire to establish a distinct, iconic identity for himself that could rival that of his more precocious musical brothers, John and Paul.) There’s a love-bead simplicity to Living in the Material World’s earnest embrace of what mysticism meant to George Harrison. And though I’m in no way questioning the depth or sincerity of George’s faith, I’m saying that it was a lot more complicated than the movie makes it. After the kaleidoscopic dazzle of its early-Beatles opening, the first half of Living in the Material World gets a bit perfunctory, skipping around so much, through George’s music and his religious journey, that even his greatest Beatles songs (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun”) are dispensed with via a hasty anecdote or two.

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But that’s because tonight’s half of the movie is merely the prelude. It’s in the far superior second half that Scorsese, out from under the mountain of the Beatles, begins to show some real point of view as a filmmaker. And he does it by launching the second half as an audacious act of musical-historical revisionism. At this point, it’s not necessarily a controversial statement to say that if you had to pick the single best post-Beatles album that any of the solo Beatles ever made, it might well be All Things Must Pass. (Personally, I’d choose Paul McCartney’s Ram, with All Things Must Pass a close second.) I still remember the thrill of first touching its big, blocky box cover, with its enigmatic grainy-gray photograph of a very long-haired Harrison sitting with garden gnomes that look like his stone cousins, when I got it as a present on Christmas morning. That 1970 triple album, was, of course, apple-jammed with all the songs that Harrison had been writing and storing up because they didn’t make it onto the Beatles’ late albums. But what Scorsese does is to present the entire career of the Beatles, at least from Harrison’s perspective, as essentially a seven-year warm-up to All Things Must Pass. And then he presents All Things Must Pass as George’s Beatles. Which is just what it was.

I will never forget the tingle I felt while standing, when I was around 11, at a jukebox in a diner in early-’70s Ann Arbor, dropping a coin into the machine to play a song that was still new to me: “What Is Life.” That descending guitar line crackled out of the speaker like a sassy, jagged lightning bolt. The drums were as thunderous as Led Zeppelin’s, only it was romantic thunder, and Harrison’s yearning vocals rode atop Phil Spector’s now-electrified wall of sound like a jubilant cry of triumph: He had broken free! Free of the Beatles, of the ’60s, of the material world. “Tell me what is my life/Without your love/Tell me who-ooo am I/Without you/By my side.” It was one of the most ecstatic things I’d ever heard, and ever would hear. It was the spirit of love speaking through George Harrison, as it would speak through him throughout that album. As a producer, Phil Spector had always been out to touch the heavens, and on All Things Must Pass, on songs like “Awaiting on You All” and “My Sweet Lord” and the haunting “Let It Roll,” he helped to lift George up so that George could touch them too.

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The heart and soul of Living in the Material World is those early-’70s years, when George, whether in the studio or staging the Concert for Bangladesh, got in full touch with the spirit inside himself. The movie explains his outwardly benign reaction to having his wife Patti stolen right out from under him by his good buddy Eric Clapton in a fascinating – and, I thought, rather convincing – way: George may have existed in our world, but as a result of his spiritual wanderings, he didn’t take anything that transpired in it all that seriously. He cultivated, and lived by, a whatever-happens-happens attitude. Still, it’s a shock, and one that the movie never really prepares for or explains, when George, in the middle of the ’70s, descends into a major drug habit that wrecked his voice and gutted his performances. There’s some footage of the burned-out George in concert, but I was less interested in the scurrilous details – though, to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded hearing them – than in some explanation for why George the religious seeker started using addiction to fill the hole that God had. Did he feel betrayed by God? Did he get caught in the trap of thinking that drugs enhanced his mysticism? Or was it just that bag of anger taking over? Living in the Material World doesn’t give us a clue.

What it does do is feature Olivia Harrison, George’s wife from 1978 until the day he died of lung cancer (in 2001), in a wonderfully emotional interview. Comely and articulate, a woman who lives intensely in her head, the Mexican-born, Southern California-raised Olivia is, on the surface, so different from George that simply by listening to her voice, you get a touching sense of their yin and yang. Through her candid descriptions of their life together, you see some of the sides of George that he hid from most of the world, whether he was gardening at his Friar Park estate with the same perfectionistic fervor he brought to working out a slide-guitar solo, or responding to the vibes of the women he attracted throughout his life. Olivia’s description of the moment of George’s death is one of the most moving things I’ve ever heard. He’d devoted years to preparing for it, always trying to peer over the moat to get just a glimpse of the unmaterial world, telling himself that it was nothing more or less than an extension of our own. And so he wasn’t really leaving; he was just transforming. His guitar gently wept, but George Harrison spent his whole life teaching himself to smile at God.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Originally posted October 5 2011 — 1:59 PM EDT

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