The problem with showing a documentary about someone as famous as George Harrison is that many people will think they already know everything about him. As a former Beatle, the most celebrated rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, Harrison has been part of our collective cultural consciousness for almost fifty years. This might keep patrons away from Facets’s screening of Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World this coming Sunday, April 29, at 7:00 pm. Or, young people might consider this documentary a standard “great-man” biography, which spotlights someone from a past too distant to interest a generation that finds value in only today’s movies and music. I don’t think I have ever known a previous generation more interested in validating their own tastes rather than expanding their personal canvases by seeking out the music or movies of another time not their own. Either assumption about Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Harrison would be a disservice to this poignant and incisive interpretation of one great artist by another.
Facets’ one-time-only screening is a special event that our intrepid programmer, Charles Coleman, snagged just this week. I wanted to blog about it to alert people to this last-minute addition to the schedule. As I began to research the film, I discovered some interesting facets to the film, if you pardon the pun.
The film uses that television-documentary style made famous by PBS, consisting of photographs, old interviews, new interviews with those who knew Harrison, and candid footage from behind the scenes of his public life. While the format is conventional, some of the material is new and all of it is well edited. I was impressed with the level of research for the film, which took five years to uncover. Much of it was from Harrison’s own archives, courtesy of his widow, Olivia. It included home movies, vacation footage, a recording of his first sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar, and unseen footage from the Beatles era. Plus, the research team tracked down every filmed interview Harrison ever gave. But, it isn’t always the breadth of material that’s important, it’s how it’s culled and edited together. In coordinating the Beatles research, for example, Scorsese attempted to tell the story from George’s point of view, so it seemed like a first-person perspective.
|Harrison with good friend Eric Idle of Monty Python|
A reviewer for The New York Times complained that the second half of the film devoted to the post-Beatles era was too diverse. This was a time when Harrison pursued his own music, organized benefit concerts, became a film producer, and formed the Traveling Wilburys when he missed being in a band, which depicts Harrison as someone who never rested on his laurels. I wonder which pursuit the Times reviewer felt was not important. Personally, I have always wanted to know more about Harrison’s efforts as a film producer. His production company, Handmade Films, was founded to support the films of Monty Python, including Life of Brianand Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, but it also produced Mona Lisa and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, one of my all-time favorite films. Harrison also subsidized the movies of individual Python members once they were on their own: Michael Palin’s The Missionary and A Private Function, John Cleese’s Privates on Parade, and Eric Idle’s Nuns on the Run.
The running thread throughout the documentary is Harrison’s spiritual quest, which began with the first years of wealth and success as a member of the Beatles. He quickly learned material success was not equivalent to personal fulfillment. He roamed the world seeking a path to enlightenment or individual truth. Though never perfect, he became a compassionate individual as a result of his quest, eschewing the limelight but never dropping out. While we are accustomed to stereotyping George as the “quiet Beatle” or “spiritual Beatle,” this film will reveal exactly what that meant, especially compared to contemporary singers who try on spiritual quests as though they are the latest fashions, or, worse, equate outrageous fashions with a sort of spiritual or intellectual statement.
If he had lived, George Harrison would have been the same age as Martin Scorsese. In interviews about the film, he seems to relate to Harrison as he reflects on the musician’s life, noting the price he paid to his own creativity by collaborating with the Beatles. Scorsese’s comments about Harrison sound like an elder statesman reflecting on his own life or career, and I think mature viewers will see this subtext in the documentary. Living in the Material Worldincludes several excerpts from Harrison’s last interview before his death from cancer in 2001, an interview that seems to haunt Scorsese, like it might haunt anyone who is no longer. . . well, young.
Author: Susan Doll teaches film studies and art history at Ringling College of Art and Design. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies and Florida on Film. She writes regularly for the Turner Classic Movies website, contributing weekly to the TCM blog.