GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD – a film by Martin Scorsese (2011)
Martin Scorsese’s absorbing documentary made for HBO TV was co-produced by George Harrison’s widow, Olivia. I would suspect that she helped ensure that so much of the film is dedicated to her husband’s spiritual journey rather than getting sidetracked into his marital indiscretions.
Both she and Sir Paul McCartney are very protective/secretive about the sexual adventures of the ‘quiet Beatle’. They each refer to his relations with women in a very cryptic manner. McCartney says that he was a red-blooded male who liked what ‘normal’ men like, while she talks about overcoming “all those other things” that occasionally got in the way of their wedded bliss. She says that he had a special aura that women found irresistible and that when she is asked what the secret of staying married to someone like him is, she always replies “don’t get divorced”.
I wouldn’t want ,or expect, Martin Scorsese to hunt for dark secrets or dig around for some dirt, but in the course of a three hour movie I would have liked a slightly more rounded portrait.
There’s a gap too in that while being in awe of the ‘Gospel’ song My Sweet Lord, there is no mention at all of the very costly 10 year legal battle over copyright infringement which resulted in George Harrison being found guilty and fined heavily for having ‘subconsciously copied’ The Chiffon’s He’s So Fine.
These reservations aside, this is a fascinating film portrait that proves that George was so much more than a useful backing musician to Lennon-McCartney’s song writing genius. You listen to any Beatles song and they are impossible to imagine without his intuitive guitar playing and as their career developed he became even more influential to the way their sound evolved.
McCartney always comes over as a dick in these films. He deserves credit for keeping the Fab Four on track but even to this day reveals the patronising attitude that drove George crazy. He’s like an older brother grudgingly conceding his young sibling’s strengths. For instance, he ridiculously implies that George at first seemed happy to stay in the shadow of him and Lennon thus downgrading the massive contribution he made to all the Beatles’ music.
Macca says at one point that in the late 60s The Beatles has lost their spirituality and adds “not that we had that much to begin with”. His perspective was more about finding creative strength from within in order to sustain and build on their unprecedented success.
George Harrison was far more serious about the way he embraced Indian culture and studied meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He never entirely rejected the material world but he was also committed to finding some deeper purpose in life.
The wife of press officer Derek Taylor makes a good insight that he was searching for the mental high he experienced on LSD but without the chemical substances.
Harrison was very quickly disillusioned with the drug culture that is so associated with the revolution in the head of the sixties. Of a trip to Haight-Ashbury, he comments that the young kids from San Francisco just “looked like bums”.
It is this simple, pragmatic down the earth aspect of his character that shines through in the film and explains why he continues to be regarded with such affection from all walks of life. He even had the grace to forgive Eric Clapton for stealing his first wife Patti Boyd. Clapton speaks frankly about this episode and comes out of it all better than Boyd does.
There was nothing pretentious or false about Harrison. His letters he sent to his mom and dad are touching as he sought to reassure them that despite all the Beatlemania he was still being a good boy.
In a clip from the early sixties, an interviewer asks him about the image of The Beatles and he replies something to the effect of ‘what image ?- this is how I am, this is how we really are’. I find such old footage profoundly moving because it illustrates what is wrong about the way stars are presented in the media nowadays.
The Beatles were unique because they were so natural and the ‘what you see is what you get’ image never came across as just a clever marketing strategy. They had the sharp suits and the mop-top haircuts but they would have conquered our hearts even without these details.
One piece of information that surprised me was that it was George who teamed up with John and Yoko to make the sound collage Revolution No.9 from The White Album. This shows an openness which I didn’t suspect as I recall he once dismissed experimental artists being responsible for ‘Avant-Garde-a- clue’ music.
The relative solo careers after The Beatles split up show what a neglected talent Harrison was. Lennon made classic albums like Plastic Ono Band and Imagine but McCartney, whether solo or with Wings, has never made anything to match the brilliance of All Things Must Pass which is arguably the greatest post-Beatles album of all. Of the making of this triple album, it is ironic to see the very wired Phil Spector complaining of Harrison’s extreme perfectionism – talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
Scorsese’s film rightly elevates the role of George the ‘dark horse’ to shows his vital role he played in the music that changed the world and proves that you should always watch out for the quiet ones.