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Scorsese's HBO George Harrison Biography is Lyrical, Musical, and Beautiful
October 4, 2011  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

One of the very first images in director Martin Scorsese's fab four-hour HBO documentary biography, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, shows the former Beatle playing hide-and-seek with the camera, partly obscured by a bunch of colorful tulips.

By the next time we see that same image, near the end of the two-part program, it's saturated not only with color, but with meaning...

By then, we know so much about "the quiet Beatle," including the fact that he painstakingly and constantly returned to his own garden, finding peace and happiness in toiling with his own hands, and seeking to craft and nurture small patches of transient, but inspirational, beauty.

Scorsese is the type of filmmaker, whether dealing with fiction or nonfiction, who embraces symbolism like a poet -- or a lyricist. So when he plants Harrison in the same garden as the late musician's beloved flowers, the meaning, especially the second time around, seems clear, and applied equally to the tulips and to Harrison:

What a temporary but breathtaking thing of beauty.


George Harrison: Living in the Material World premieres Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 5-6, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Watch and record both parts, because you'll want to revisit and review these often. Scorsese's last two-part TV documentary about a musician, 2005's Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, was an American Masters masterpiece for PBS. This one, on Harrison, is just as good -- and, afterward, even more haunting.

What's most impressive about this new study is that, even after ABC's exhaustive Beatles Anthology documentary miniseries in 1995, there's so much original material and formerly unseen footage here. Part of it, it turns out, is due to Harrison's wariness, while cooperating with the other surviving Beatles on that program, that he was in danger of again getting short shrift, just as he had when songs were parceled out on the various Beatle LPs in the 1960s.

So he began filming himself, from time to time, and stockpiling interviews telling his own story and stories, just in case. Harrison died in 2001, after battling both cancer and an intruder who invaded his home and stabbed him repeatedly and seriously. So his widow, Olivia Harrison, released those materials and others to Scorsese, and, along with son Dhani, sat for new interviews. She, along with Scorsese and Nigel Sinclair, is one of the producers of Material World, but she does no whitewashing of her husband's legacy.

In fact, one of the funniest moments in the entire documentary comes when Olivia, after being candid about Harrison's occasional marital meanderings, asks and answers her own tough question.

"What's the secret of a long marriage?" she asks

Then she adds, with a wry smile: "You don't get divorced."

But there's lots and lots of true love on display here. Another standout moment, among many in Material World, comes when George is shown fiddling around with teenage son Dhani, playing guitar, in a recording-studio control room. At one point, they hug -- a father-son moment that Dhani is fortunate enough to have frozen in time, at least on film.

I'm a major Beatles fan, so the majority of material in this four hours was familiar to me -- but some was new, and Harrison's story is told, impressively and almost amazingly, without relying too much on the Beatles part of it.

Harrison's life journey, like his spiritual journey, took its own course. The musician who introduced the sitar to most American ears on "Norwegian Wood" was fond, and unafraid, of paving his own path: to Indian music and Eastern religion, and to follow his enthusiasms and make life-long friends of race car drivers, comedians and lots of others.

Harrison's story also includes Monty Python (he financed their first big film), Eric Clapton (who wrote "Layla" as a successful attempt to woo Harrison's then-wife, Pattie, away from him), Bob Dylan (and the other Traveling Wilburys), and so many, many more.


Interviewed for this documentary are some key players -- Ringo Starr gets tearful, while Paul McCartney faithfully keeps some bad-boy secrets private. But others important to Harrison's story are here, too, including first wife Pattie Boyd, early German friends Astrid Kirchher and Klaus Voorman, Eric Idle (seen here with Harrison), Terry Gilliam, producer Phil Spector (!), as well as Clapton, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar and other musicians who recorded with, and were befriended by, Harrison.

Part 1 of Material World, shown Wednesday, takes us through the Beatles era -- from the heady, giddy days of Liverpool and Germany, when Harrison was the group's raw but talented underage lead guitarist, to the dour days recording Let it Be as both an album and a movie. Harrison and McCartney are shown in a scene from that movie, arguing testily though quietly about what sort of guitar part McCartney wanted Harrison to provide.

Part 2, shown Thursday, moves on to the concert for Bangladesh, the first rock charity concert (and still one of the best filmed rock concerts of all time; buy it HERE); to Harrison's close alliance with the Pythons, which started when he mortgaged his mansion to fund the launch of Handmade Films and Monty Python's Life of Brian; to Harrison's successful solo career; and his late-era comeback with Dylan, Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the Wilburys.

The nuggets to be discovered here are so choice, I'll leave most of them buried for viewers to find on their own. But I can't resist naming two. I didn't know, for example, that Harrison's "Let Me In" was written about Dylan, as an appeal to an old friend to be less remote. And Petty reveals what Harrison said just after Orbison died -- a shockingly honest thing to say, as well as to reveal.

Near the end of the show, when Olivia recounts the home invasion in which she and her husband fought off a crazed intruder, things get emotional as well as intimate. It happens again when Ringo, recalling his last moment with George, wells up with tears. Or, if you prefer, gently weeps.

"God, it's like 'Barbara f***ing Walters' here, isn't it?" he asks.

No, it's a lot better than that.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World ends with a chant, sung by Harrison, that is gorgeous, and hovers in the ear, and the mind, long after the documentary is over.

Much of Scorsese's loving character study is like that. It's a pleasure to watch, and to hear -- and, afterward, just as pleasant to ponder.




lkm said:

I'm looking forward to seeing this - once it's available on DVD (any news on that?)

Also: George died in 2011, not 2011 ...

[Hey, I think you meant to type "2001" the first time, just like I had meant to. We both typed 2011 instead. But thanks to you pointing it out, I've corrected it in the column. Thanks. Bad, fast typing was to blame. That, and being your own editor.

As to when it's coming out on DVD, HBO is good about turning around its programs for home video fairly quickly. There's no date yet, but you can ask to be notified through Amazon. Or just keep reading. We here at TVWW won't let it go unnoticed. - DB]

Comment posted on October 4, 2011 1:45 PM

Mark N said:

Dear David
As a fellow Beatle Fan (my story is "She Loves You" on album hit my girlfriend like a ton of bricks and hearing it changed my life. Those guys clearly expanded my musical endevours- HECK!... I learned guitar, became a musician and songwriter in groups and eventually a music producer). This documentary did a great job of satisfying me and must admit I had doubts but the highlights... John singing "That Boy" with George watching just before the Beatles Lightbulb joke... Ringo's story of forever being two-a-room roommates... Ringo's Ravi "AH!" tale and the famous George comment to George Martin "I don't like your tie" story, from the horse's mouth. Especially loved the emphasis on his spiritual journey. Some filler footage but overall seriously looking forward to Part II.
Incidentally, the chosen songs are extremely well mixed and produced for TV audio. A grand job by all involved. As always ...thanks, David, for the recommendation.

[My pleasure. In this case, all the way around. -- DB]

Comment posted on October 6, 2011 6:22 PM

Doug said:

Always enjoy your commentary on Fresh Air David, so today when I heard you discussing the new Woody Allen documentary to air on PBS, you mentioned this George documentary and I said, I HAVE to see what David says about this! My first visit to your site and I'll come back often.

I'm also a huge Beatles fan and I haven't seen this particular documentary yet (Xmas is coming!) but cannot wait. I'm so glad to hear that it includes stuff that even us die hard fans won't have seen. If it is as good as the Dylan/Scorcese documentary is then I'll be in heaven.

Thanks for your fine work that I always stop what I'm doing to listen to when I'm listening to Fresh Air. I feel a kinship to you - you sound like TV was one of your best friends growing up, just like it was mine!

[Hi, Doug, and welcome. Yes, sadly, TV was a good friend of mine growing up -- and just like most of my other best friends from high school, I've managed to keep it in my life ever since. Once you get hold of the Harrison documentary and watch it, write back and let me know what you thought.

Meanwhile, scroll down to the bottom of the main TVWW page to the Fresh Air Faves, click on it and find and listen to the Sgt. Pepper 40th anniversary tribute. If you're a Beatles fan, you should love it. - DB]

Comment posted on November 17, 2011 1:16 PM

Doug said:

"Once you get hold of the Harrison documentary and watch it, write back and let me know what you thought."

David - I can't seem to locate the film on dvd, just bluray. Unless I'm missing something ...

I'm sure you have, but I haven't made the switch to bluray as I'm sure there will be another format immediately following it (too much music gear to buy!).

btw - loved the Sgt. Peppers Tribute.
Thanks again for this blog!

[Dear Doug -- Thank YOU for reading it.
And wow, you're right -- the Harrison documentary, right now, is on Blu-Ray only. I hadn't even noticed. You CAN get it on regular DVD as a foreign import -- but that would require a multi-region DVD player, which would be more gear also. - DB]

Comment posted on February 3, 2012 12:54 PM
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Just to let you all know - the Harrison/Scorcese Documentary is available for pre-order at Amazon.com to be released on May 1st. Yayy!
Apr 25, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Thanks for the heads up. You better BELIEVE we'll be promoting it here. We here at TVWW loved that HBO documentary!
Apr 26, 2012
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