Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

This week was filled with so many inspiring events–Blur’s performance at the Brit Awards where they were awarded Outstanding Contribution to Music (and Adele getting her knickers in a twist because her acceptance speech was truncated so that the band could perform–boo freaking hoo), Kentucky kicking butt twice (…why were we down by 13 at halftime against Mississippi State, though? I still don’t understand!), and discovering that I have a new favorite Ricky Nelson song (“String Alooooong”, oh my could that boy sing or what). But today would have been George Harrison’s 69th birthday, and there is nothing so dear to my heart as my Beatles. And I decided to mark the occasion by viewing Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George, Living in the Material World, for the first time.

I had high expectations for this film. I loved The Last Waltz and No Direction Home, and I had no qualms about Scorsese tackling a subject as mysterious and complex as George. I must admit, however, that I was slightly underwhelmed by this film. When asked whether the film revealed anything new to him about his dear friend, Ringo Starr replied in this month’s issue of Mojo: “No…but I knew George really well.”

Of course I could never profess to know George as well as Ringo, but I found myself waiting for something more while watching the film. Everyone you can imagine is interviewed for this film–Harry and Pete Harrison (George’s older brothers), Olivia, Dhani, Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Eric Idle, the late Neil Aspinall, and on and on, but I’m not quite sure why some were interviewed, as they really had nothing to say–for example, Derek Taylor’s wife. You and your husband came to England, met John and George at the airport, and you all had LSD on the car drive to Brian Epstein’s house. And they were really nice to you. Cool. (This is the part where Wayne and Garth are all, “NOT!”) This is not to say that no one had any revealing insights–there were plenty but perhaps there were some that should have ended up on the cutting room floor, as should have the disproportionate amount of time devoted to the George-Pattie-Eric triangle. That was unnecessary and boring, augmented by Pattie Boyd reading from her insipid autobiography.

The film is sparse with details; there is no voice-over narration to guide you. You are expected to know who Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are without titles (as you should be, let’s be honest); you are expected to know the general details of the Beatles’ story. This allows space for what I think is the film’s greatest strength–the use of rare footage and photographs, many taken by George himself. My single favorite scene in the film is the footage that opens and closes it: George is in one of his many gardens, hiding behind the tall flowers, making faces that are simultaneously somber and playful. That footage, lasting only a handful of seconds, captures so much of George. I enjoyed the film most when Scorsese used footage like this, sometimes interspersed with the music of the Beatles and Harrison, and let it simply speak for itself.

George Harrison, Living in the Material World

Is there anything you would say to George if he were around today?
Dhani Harrison: Were have you been? I had a dream and that was what I said to him in the dream, so I guess that’s what would be the question. Where have you been since I last saw you? And he answered it, so I can tell you the answer as well, which was, “Here, the whole time.”

I loved Ringo’s recollections the most. He recalled how, in their early days of fame, they all stopped somewhere to eat. George was the first one back in the car–behind the wheel, in the driver’s seat. Paul, however, had the keys. And so a stubborn argument ensued. “I have the keys!” “I’ve got the wheel!” They finally left about two hours later. Ringo did not disclose who drove.

He shared how in the frenzy of Beatlemania, they often had an entire floor of a hotel to themselves. They, however, found themselves meeting in the central location of the bathroom–just to be together.

Ringo also shared this aphorism: “The Beatles had one day off a month, and on the day off, Paul would go to a beauty pageant.” Booyah.

Photograph by Astrid Kirchherr

Astrid Kirchherr shared another one of my favorite anecdotes. The Beatles arrived in Hamburg, only three days after the death of Stuart Sutcliffe, which they were ignorant of until she told them at the airport. Once she took them back to her home, John asked if he could see the place where Stuart used to paint. Once in the room, he was overcome with emotion, and she nudged George to stand behind him as she framed a photograph. George was just barely eighteen, but, she said, he had such a calm and strengthening presence. I love the emotion–and, as a result, the relationship between the two–she captured in that series of photographs.

Interviewer: He [John Lennon] was no angel.
George: He wasn’t. But he was as well.
Interviewer: Was he?
George: Yeah.

Olivia Harrison remarked that there is the saying or teaching that in this life, one must perfect one human relationship in order to truly love God–you practice loving God by loving others, and she felt that one relationship for George was with his music and by extension, the other Beatles and other close friends who were also his musical collaborators. This documentary gave a balanced view of George, showcasing both his faults and successes as a man, but what I took most from this film was what a kind, genuine friend he was to so many.

Interviewer: Are you individually millionaires yet? 
John: No…
Interviewer: Where does all the money go? 
John: Well, a lot of it goes to Her Majesty. 
George: She’s a millionaire. 

The Beatles actually were the most adorable, endearing, witty, talented, genuine group of people to ever grace this earth. Just thought I’d throw that out there. And it’s kind of scary that there are people who don’t hold them in the highest regard. That really, really scares me.

Back to the film, though.

Living in the Material World has much to recommend it–home movies from the early days to backstage on the Dark Horse tour to Dhani helping George in the garden to the Traveling Wilburys rehearsing in the kitchen, the warm memories from Ringo, the good and the bad memories from Olivia, including a detailed recollection of the night a man invaded their Friar Park home and stabbed George, Paul’s honesty about George’s contributions to the Beatles music and his own bossiness that stifled George’s creativity at times, Yoko’s generous words, and the inclusion of photographs paired with so many of George’s most beautiful compositions. I’ll probably be listening to All Things Must Pass constantly for the next few days as a result.

“He just lit the room.” –Olivia Harrison on George “leaving” his body 

As he did in life. Happy birthday, dear. Love and miss you always.