Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the musician George Harrison is available to stream on Netflix. ‘Living in the Material World’ clocks in at over three hours and surveys the man, the music, and the philosophy the guided his life — and death.
When people think of The Beatles, particularly people who listen to them peripherally, they think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney as the main architects of the group’s success. And rightly so, the duo penned many of the band’s biggest songs.
But George was an immense talent, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and a major influence in cultural and music history.
George was born in 1943, which made him the youngest Beatle. Young during their tremendous rise in the mid-60s, he was only 27 when they officially broke up in spring 1970. Toward the end of the group’s run, he began to come into his as a songwriter. When “Come Together” (off ‘Abbey Road’) was released as a single, the B-side was “Something” — George’s song, a first. (As the documentary explains, the Beatles typically released a Paul-written song for the A side, and John for the B.) George was also responsible for “Taxman”, “Here Comes the Sun,” and, of course, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” As the documentary explains, some of his most memorable early solo work didn’t make the cut for some of the final Beatles projects.
When Harrison finally went on his own way, he had amassed the material, recording expertise, and musical mastery (particularly on 12-string guitar) to excel with confidence as a solo act.
Many consider George’s fist post-Beatles solo album, 1970’s ‘All Things Must Pass,’ to be one of the best Beatles solo records ever released. Produced with Phil Spector, the album possesses a soulful blend of acoustic sounds, folk music, and classic rock that plays as timeless. It has aged tremendously well.
The film documents his unique relationship with other musicians and guitarists, such as Eric Clapton and Billy Preston, and how he evolved from a member of legendary band to an accomplished solo artist and brilliant collaborative. (The bit on the Traveling Wilburys is amazing too. Just to think, that Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and George were once in a group). And of course it details one of his most important relationships, that with Ravi Shankar, an Indian musician and expert sitar player.
Scorsese treats Harrison’s spiritual life with the same respect as his musical career. Hinduism (I believe Hare Krishna) deeply influenced Harrison, and he was one of the mid-to-late twentieth century’s greatest proponents of meditation in the West. A viewer gets the sense that Harrison always strove for improvement, and wrestled with the good and bad of his personality (as we all do) each day, in a slow quest for self mastery and release. I would rather not attempt to qualify his philosophy as to risk getting it wrong, but my sense is that George viewed the physical world as a temporary place where we wrestle with ourselves to come closer to to our spirit — to ready our minds for the everlasting, true nature of existence beyond what we know,
He spent much of his life spiritually preparing for the inevitable. And though it came too soon (he died in 2001 at the age of 58), you’ll leave the documentary with the sense that he was at peace when it did.
You’ll leave ‘Living in the Material World’ with a deep admiration for Harrison’s musical talent and spiritual quest. The documentary is filled with rare photos and home videos. It is a truly unique viewing experience thanks to the brilliant orchestration of Martin Scorsese and his team. The interviewees, from Harrison’s family to Ringo, Paul, and Clapton, further color this personal portrayal. As Clapton notes, he felt that he was one of George’s closest friends. When he arrived at George’s funeral, Clapton realized that were plenty of others who probably felt the same way. After watching this film, you’ll feel like you could be one of them.
While he eschewed the material world, I’m sure glad George Harrison left so much for us to remember him by.