George Harrison: Living in the Material World

George Harrison: Living in the Material World, dir. Martin Scorsese (Lionsgate)

Ringing Roger, November 2011

‘Who’s your favourite Beatle?’ Those of a certain age may recall that that was once the burning question for secondary school pupils everywhere. Reflecting on it now, I suppose I’d try and evade the question by simply saying that the one I increasingly find most interesting is George Harrison. I am pleased to concur in this with the great film director, Martin Scorsese.

The first third or so of Scorsese’s film is a reminder of the Beatles’ rise to fame. It’s a story that’s often been told, but Scorsese has been allowed access to family letters and photographs which give us an intriguing picture of the young Harrison coming to terms with the burden of fame. Also, new interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and others help bring home the quandary posed by being a member of the ‘fab four’.

It’s a quandary that affected Harrison most deeply. While we all know that the group grew tired of performing for fans who would rather scream than listen, we often forget how early on he had become disillusioned with the pop world and with the trappings of celebrity. Crucial here is the meeting in the mid-sixties with Ravi Shankar: not only the most important exponent of Indian classical music in the world but also a man of profound spiritual wisdom. Scorsese conveys how strong was Shankar’s affection for Harrison, whom he regarded as a genuine seeker after enlightenment.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the rest of the film focuses mainly on Harrison’s turn to the East: his efforts to master the sitar under the guidance of Shankar; and his rejection of his childhood Catholicism in favour of Hinduism. Even those who have little interest in the Beatles know about the episode of their trip to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat in Rishikesh in 1967, to perfect their recently acquired skill of ‘transcendental meditation’; and the general consensus is that it was just a passing phase, typical of their restless sensation-seeking. But Harrison stuck with the Maharishi, who comes out of this film rather well. Certainly, it is clear that Harrison, prompted by both him and Shankar, became a serious student of Indian philosophy from then on.

Central to the film is a celebration of the still-impressive album, All Things Must Pass, released in the very year of the break-up of the Beatles (1970). Looking back, it was remarkably brave of Harrison to release an album of sacred music at a time when flower power had turned sour, and the whole idea of an alternative spirituality had become associated with drug abuse.

Not that Scorsese is out to paint Harrison as a saint. Indeed, the singer’s lapse into addiction is addressed head-on. Again, his widow Olivia speaks freely about the difficulty of living with a man who could be both angry and amiable. There’s a whole other story behind her wry recollection of what she used to say to people who asked what was the secret of a long marriage: ‘You don’t get divorced!’

But perhaps there are two sequences that linger most in the mind. The first is the description by Olivia of the near-fatal attack by a deranged intruder at their home in December 1999. It is hard to get out of one’s head the fact that Harrison sought to dissuade his attacker by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, nor that he retained his sense of humour in the aftermath of the intrusion when, being taken to the ambulance by new medic recruits, he enquired of them, ‘So what do you think of the job so far?’

The second is the sequence in which Ringo Starr recalls visiting George in the final weeks of the latter’s life, when he was dying of cancer. I defy anyone not to be moved by this. It’s a fitting end to a documentary which stands up well next to Scorsese’s much-praised celebration of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. Surely these are  the two most important films about popular music ever made …

Laurence Coupe