By George: Living in the Material World

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I used to think the greatest thing George Harrison had done on film was hitting the deck about 5 seconds into A Hard Day’s Night.

Scorsese takes it at least one step further with his 3 ½ hour epic Living In The Material World, colouring between the lines of this astoundingly talented and complex individual who helped reshape pop music for almost 40 years.

Since discovering The Beatles as a 3 year-old, I have ingested every known song, taped every documentary and read an embarrassing amount of books on the subject of the greatest band ever made. Still, I went into this film wondering whether George (my 2nd favourite Beatle) could prove interesting enough, endearing enough to maintain such a long tribute.

I don’t know what I was thinking. It doesn’t drag for a second. In fact it flies effortlessly through Harrison’s 58 years, from his youth to his decadent years in Hamburg with the newly-formed Beatles, to their frightening rise to fame and eventual solo careers. The gradual transformation of George from the ‘quiet’ to the ‘esoteric’ Beatle is dealt with such deftness that his motives never seem phoney or naïve. In the end we find a man at peace, busily preparing mentally and spiritually for death.

Through interviews with friends Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector, Klaus Voormann, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and many others, a believable and deeply conflicted image of Harrison emerges. A cocky straight-talker, a well-read Hindu, a drug-user, a devout meditator, a manic perfectionist and a man willing to accept change so amicably that he basically gives Eric Clapton permission to steal his wife.

The sheer wealth of archival material is enough for me to recommend this film to everybody I’ve ever met. Many scenes had my jaw drop with footage of such historic Beatles importance I’m amazed it’s been hidden for so long. It’s this multitude of material, the intimacy with which it’s treated, alongside interviews from those who loved him, that make this documentary something special, something easy to fall into and be captivated by from start to finish. I would have paid admission just to listen to the songs, which sounded so hi-fi through surround-sound cinema speakers I had to restrain myself from air drumming.

In a way Living in the Material World acts as the companion piece to No Direction Home, Scorsese’s 2005 documentary chronicling the life of Bob Dylan. They share a similar style and tone. They’re intimate epics. And both go for 208 minutes!

Dylan’s film however seemed to put the audience at an arm’s length. His infamous caginess made the film a little too vague and tangential. While both Harrison and Dylan share an unashamed “dark horse” persona, there’s a willingness in George that makes this documentary a far deeper study, a complete portrait.

In saying that, there were moments that seemed to be glossed over for one reason or another. When going into the origins of “My Sweet Lord”, I was half-expecting someone to mention he was sued for copyright infringement of the melody. But I’m glad no one did actually.

Despite being 31 years dead, I expected John Lennon to have more of a presence in the film. But in a way, his absence seems to be testament to the fact that George really was under-appreciated in his time. Lennon lived for 10 years after The Beatles’ breakup but that’s seemingly not enough hindsight for a good soundbite or two.

All in all, it’s honest and intimate, funny and engrossing. A great part of the film’s success is that it manages to not be preachy despite all the spirituality. Also, it’s probably the last great Beatles-related documentary. Seeing recent interviews with Paul, pulling the same sort of veiled arrogance as he did in the Anthologies, and Ringo the talented but innately dorky Liverpudlian, you wonder if either are interesting or charming enough to warrant a documentary like this. But then, death changes our perspective on everyone.

And keeping that in mind, I’d like to finish on a question. Who do you think will be the last Beatle?

Ringo is a little older, he was never meant to live past 12 or something ’cause of some childhood disease, but he seems to have lived a fairly quiet life. Paul was married to Heather Mills, but on the other hand he seems pretty agile…

Place your bets in the comments box below….!

Living in the Material World is now showing in limited release.

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