‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’ movie review: top-tier Beatles doc

A treasure trove of rarely-seen archive footage, photographs, narrated correspondence, archival and new interview footage, and (of course) music, director Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World is a real delight. It’s a sprawling, expansive (if not exhaustive) meditation on the former Beatle that paints a warm and welcome portrait.

But it’s not a film for the Beatles or Harrison novice: the audience is expected to be familiar with not just the band (who are never identified onscreen), but also the former members, managers, producers, musician and artist contemporaries, and other major aspects of Harrison’s life, including Ravi Shankar, the Monty Python crew, Jackie Stewart, and Phil Spector, among others. 

In other words, the film rarely stops to explain the basics, outside of major events in Harrison’s life; if you don’t already know who these people are and what relationship they had with Harrison, you’re likely to find yourself lost at some points during the film. 

Which is fine by me: so much of the basics have been covered previously that they’d only serve to pad out the already-imposing 3.5-hour runtime even further. By leaving out what we already know, Scorsese manages to cover so much ground and present unique material that otherwise wouldn’t be possible in a single documentary. For Harrison or Beatles fans, this is must-see stuff.

A highlight (for me) included heartbreaking passages from Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd’s diary, involving her relationship with Eric Clapton, set to Harrison’s Isn’t it a Pity (which, according to Boyd, was inspired by her, as was Clapton’s Layla). 

Clapton, by the way, who features throughout the documentary, comes off as especially arrogant, in sharp contrast with the McCartney, Starr, and other interviewees. Even though Clapton went after (and later married) his wife, Harrison still considered him a good friend; one wonders if Scorsese shares the same perspective, or if Clapton is just being Clapton here.

Tom Petty, who worked together with Harrison (and Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Jim Keltner) in the supergroup Travelling Wilburys, also makes for a lively interviewee who spins some good Harrison tales (“you never know when you might need a ukulele, and not everyone carries these around.”) His recollection of Harrison’s phone call after Orbison’s death is particularly memorable.

One of the more emotional sequences involves Olivia Harrison’s detailed account of George’s stabbing by a crazed intruder in 1999; as the duo fought the attacker for their lives, their belief system (Harrison initially confronted the assailant with a Hare Krishna mantra) were put to the test. 

Olivia co-produced the film, which is a generous but by no means saintly portrait of Harrison: his drug addiction and infidelity isn’t shied away from (nor – like much of the subject matter, is it gone in to with any great depth). 

Without much in the way of a running narrative – the film encompasses so much material that it leaps from one subject to the next, maintaining only a vague chronological order – the 3.5-hour running time can sometimes feel oppressive. The film may be best suited to the small screen, where it premiered (over two nights) in the U.S. and scored Emmys for Direction and Nonfiction Special. 

Still, George Harrison: Living in the Material World is fascinating stuff, incredibly well-put together, and even diehard fans are likely to find new footage, photographs, and anecdotes.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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