Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
George Harrison will always be known as the “Quiet One” when people discuss The Beatles. John was the troubled poet, Paul the musical genius behind the catchy pop melodies, and Ringo Starr will always be the lovable doofus of the band. The fascinating thing about Martin Scorsese’s new, three and half hour documentary about George Harrison is not that it tells a story that we don’t already know – since The Beatles are one of the most documented bands in history – but that it tells the story from a point of view that we have not heard before. Most stories about The Beatles begin when the troubled John met the upper middle class Paul, and musical magic was born. This one filters everything through the point of view of George. So John is a little bit more than troubled – the story told about his dumping a beer over a poor woman’s head for no reason makes him seem like a little more twisted. And musical genius hardly describes John at the beginning, as when George met him and Paul, John only had four strings on his guitar – and didn’t even know there was anything wrong with that. In this story, George was the most talented musician, and once the band becomes hugely successful, starts to think that if his two jackass band mates could write a song, then so could he. He writes hundreds of songs, only a few ever end up on the bands albums (and when they do, the rest of the band doesn’t seem to put as much effort into them, which is why George thought he might need to bring in Eric Clapton to help record While My Guitar Gently Weeps). Finally, the bickering becomes too much for everyone involved, and the most successful band in history breaks up.
The first half of Scorsese’s documentary is, for me anyone, the more fascinating of the two because it brings this new twist to it. What becomes clear is that even though all four Beatles love each other that the success simply became too much for all of them. George was tired of being shunted off to the background and had simply had enough. But all four Beatles had their reasons for ending everything. As Ringo relates, when he wanted to leave the band during the recording of the White Album, he went to Paul and told him that he was tired of seeing the other three band members so close, and he felt like an outsider, to which Paul replied, “I thought it was the three of you who were close, and I was the outsider”. Ringo then goes to John, who says in essence the same thing. Tellingly, Ringo doesn’t even go to George before he takes off for his vacation.
What also becomes clear is just how much George changed from the time the band was formed until the time it broke up. While the four Manchester boys started out having pretty much everything in common, the fame of the band affected each differently. It was George who became heavily interested in Eastern religion, music and culture, and while the others briefly became involved to, for them it was a passing fad. For George, it became a way of life.
And this, in essence, is why I think Scorsese felt the need to make this documentary in the first place. Like Scorsese, Harrison was born and raised Catholic, although he struggled with his desire to be good, and the weakness of his flesh. This is a theme that Scorsese has returned to time and again throughout his work, and in Harrison, he sees a sort of kindred spirit – someone who has poured this conflict into his art. I was also reminded of Scorsese’s Kundun, about the Dalai Lama, while watching this documentary. Kundun is one of Scorsese’s least successful films, because it seems to be lacking in conflict. Rather Scorsese was expressing his admiration towards the Dalai Lama, who seems to have found the inner peace that he was been searching for his entire life. Harrison had a touch of that as well.
The second half of the documentary, about Harrison’s life after the Beatles, is a little less successful than the first – mainly I think because while it does an excellent job of presenting the person Harrison showed to the world and to those closest to him, it never quite gets under Harrison’s skin. We are told that Harrison could be dark, that he was “always popular with women” even though he spent years married to the same woman, but this darkness and this weakness are not fully explored. I think it’s because Harrison kept these parts of himself mainly to himself. And since Harrison is dead, he cannot explain them. The archival interviews we see with him, seem a little to surface level.
Scorsese has always been interested in music and documentaries. He made one of the greatest concert films of all time with The Last Waltz, about The Band, and his Shine a Light, a concert films with an aging Rolling Stones is better than it probably should be. His greatest contribution to the musical documentary however remains No Direction Home, about Bob Dylan’s early career. That film was masterful in its depictions of Dylan, and all of his contradictions, as well as a wonderful portrait of America in the 1960s and 70s. George Harrison: Living in the Material World is not quite the film that No Direction Home – in part because Dylan is seemingly a more complex persona, and in part because it doesn’t try to cover so much ground. Living in the Material World is still one of the best documentaries you are likely to see this year however – and a fascinating portrait of the “Quiet” Beatle.