When I was about 5 or 6 years old, my dad bought an antique Wurlitzer jukebox from the mid-1950’s which sat in the dining room and sounded like a freight train (I mean that in the most wonderful way possible) charging through the neighborhood. You could literally hear the jukebox down the street! He would collect 45’s from many classic pop bands like Sam the Sham, Elvis Presley, and my personal favorite The Beatles – which left me with a never ending fascination and adoration of the band, especially when it comes to an excellent documentary on one of its members.
After last year’s reissue of the remastered Beatles catalog, fans are in for another treat this year, that being Martin Scorsese’s new HBO documentary Living in the Material World which focuses on the life and times of George Harrison. A collection of interviews, rare photographs, live footage, and home movies are cut and pasted together for an intimate look into his fascinating progression from a child to a rock legend.
The first half of the film looks at George’s life from his childhood up to the recording of the Beatles’ White Album. While the early stories of George’s life are fascinating, many of these stories and anecdotes have been covered before in the Beatles Anthology and may seem redundant to hardcore fans. The humble beginnings of The Beatles in Liverpool are documented all the way through Beatlemania, as well as George’s insecurities as a songwriter in the early days of the band.
The second half of the film takes a closer look at the breakup of The Beatles and their strained relationships that ended the band. As The Beatles began to splinter apart, George’s songwriting began to eclipse even Lennon and McCartney’s greatest works, which is solidified with the first (and best, in my humble opinion) post-Beatles solo album All Things Must Pass. It’s a true wonder by the time George turned 28 he had penned such classic songs as “Something”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and “What is Life”. George’s close friendship with Ravi Shankar is also explored in intimate detail. There is also footage of The Concert for Bangladesh, the first huge benefit concert which saw George with guests such as Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan.
There is also footage of the recording of All Things Must Pass complete with insight from producer Phil Spector. Eric Clapton also chimes in to talk about recording “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and his complicated relationship with George, given that George’s ex-wife Patty left him for Clapton.
Throughout much of the documentary, George’s concentration on spirituality and meditation is front and center, as well as his fiery temper and lust for life. Many of his peers including his widow Olivia Harrison speak at length of his struggles to reconcile a lavish lifestyle with a spiritual and meaningful life. George’s reflection on the murder of John Lennon is also touching and emotional.
Also shown is more intriguing footage of George’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys (which included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty) writing and recording together as Petty describes the writing and recording process behind songs like “Handle With Care”.
Even if you’ve seen The Beatles Anthology, I must highly recommend Living in the Material World. It’s a superb account of Beatlemania and the evolution of “the quiet Beatle” George Harrison – as well as a welcome invitation to dive deeper into George’s brilliant solo career. With the documentary clocking in at a total of over 3 hours, the second half is definitely more interesting than the first to serious Beatle fans, but overall it is a fitting tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest rock musicians.
4 stars out of 5