Martin Scorsese’s “George Harrison: Living In The Material World” (2011)

Director Martin Scorsese’s long and storied film career has followed two distinct paths—narrative features and documentaries about culture, music, and identity.  Both paths have been lauded with equal heaps of critical praise, with his documentaries on music being a particular beneficiary of said plaudits.  Scorsese’s artistic aesthetic is tied to music—early works like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967) and MEAN STREETS (1973) helped to popularize the idea of the “jukebox soundtrack”, or the usage of popular music instead of an original score. The sound of a Scorsese film is congruent with the sound of some of the greatest acts in rock and roll history, like The Band, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan to name a few.   It was only a matter of time until he tackled the subject of arguably the most iconic rock band of all time, The Beatles.

The Beatles are one of the most-listened to, most written-about, and most-dissected acts in the history of music, so what more could Scorsese possibly have to add to the conversation?  To answer this question, he decided to focus the grand narrative of The Beatles through the eyes of its most enigmatic member, George Harrison.  It was thus in 2011 that Scorsese teamed up with Harrison’s widow Olivia to release GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD, a long documentary on Harrison’s involvement with the Beatles and subsequent struggles with fame, as well as his lifelong search for spiritual enlightenment through Eastern philosophies and Transcendental Meditation.  Scorsese presents the documentary in the conventional format, featuring talking head interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Ravi Shankar, Yoko Ono, Phil Spector, Eric Clapton, and Tom Petty (among many others).  Harrison himself even makes a filmed appearance in an interview taped before his death in 2001.  Shot by Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Robert Richardson (as well as Martin Kenzie), and edited by his regular documentary cutter David Tedeschi, GEORGE HARRISON breaks up the informative interview footage with several vintage film clips, archival footage, and live concert recordings.  Starting in midcentury London and extending all the way to present day, the film charts Harrison’s personal growth and experience with fame and fortune.

Besides being just a signature Scorsese “rockumentary”, GEORGE HARRISON tells its story in such a way that finds the subject’s artistic fascinations dovetailing with Scorsese’s own. For instance, he takes the time to paint a larger picture of the culture in which Harrison was brought up, a culture that placed an importance on family and ritual even while the chaotic social unrest that marked the mid twentieth century raged in the streets around them. The director’s love of film history is present in the form of clips from classic films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW-UP (1966), employed to demonstrate the counterculture that The Beatles themselves helped to shape.  Most importantly, GEORGE HARRISON shares a kinship with narrative works like THE LAST PASSION OF CHRIST (1988) and KUNDUN (1997), in that Scorsese obliquely uses his own identity struggles with his Roman Catholic heritage to understand alternative religious viewpoints—in this case, the influence of Hinduism and other schools of Eastern thought that took hold of Harrison later in life.

As a documentary, GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD paints a thorough, detailed portrait of a man who lived an extraordinary life and left a profound mark on international culture.  Harrison’s journey is characterized as a search, or an ongoing dialogue, rather than a definitive statement on who he was and what kind of legacy he leaves behind. This is very personal territory for Scorsese, whose lifelong soul-searching with his own faith has led to some of the cinema’s most affecting and thoughtful works on religious belief and conviction.  Judging by the Emmy that Scorsese collected for his direction here, this shared journey between director and subject results in one of the finest and most unexpected rock documentaries ever made, shedding new light on a figure that’s already been in the blinding glare of the spotlight for over half a century.

GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Hip-O Records.

Credits:

Produced by Martin Scorsese, Nigel Sinclair, Olivia Harrison

Director of Photography: Martin Kenzie, Robert Richardson

Edited by: David Tedeschi