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I watched Martin Scorsese’s Living in the Material World the other week, Scorsese’s take on George Harrison. I was inclined to dismiss it at first as an undisciplined mish-mash of assorted film clips thrown together on no discernible plan and edited together rather roughly. But the film stayed with me. Days, and weeks, later I was still recalling statements and episodes. No bad film affects me that way. So I had to reconsider the film.
Scorsese is of course a more than competent film director. He’s been to film school, and has put together many fine films in his career, including several outstanding musical documentaries. No Direction Home was commissioned (controlled would be the better word) by Bob Dylan, and makes logical and visual sense, outlining life in Hibbing, musical influences on the young Dylan, and his early career, with perceptive commentary by Dylan. The Last Waltz was commissioned and produced by Robbie Robertson as a memorial to the Band and their close friends and simply screens the (alleged) final concert and behind stage, and does so very effectively. Both these are great documentaries and major films.
Living in the Material World was commissioned by Harrison’s family, based on Harrison’s archives, and produced by his wife Olivia, and is a strange hodge podge of home movies, newsreel clips of the Beatles, interviews with friends and colleagues, stills, voiceovers and concert footage, some footage one could not imagine Harrison would want seen.
So what was the point? On reflection I think that Scorsese was trying to depict the person George Harrison was, not tell the story of his life or career. A person’s life is made up of relationships before it forms a career or other trajectory of events. A person’s relationships are both a result of their personality and help create that personality. The point of the movie is that we see Harrison almost exclusively through the eyes of those he had some relationship with, and commenting on those he himself related to.
It seemed significant to me that the major relationship in Harrison’s life was not with his parents, wives or son, but with the Beatles. As a member of that group, aged 18, he became part of the most popular entertainment group the world has known, and the experience must have been transforming. Nobody but the other Beatles could have known what it was like. All four shared the same Liverpudlian background and would have been affected the same way. The most outstanding moments in the Scorsese film bear this out. One is a comment made by George about John Lennon, and an afterthought. The other is an anecdote told by Ringo Starr about George. Both unforgettable.
Scorsese’s film conveys the fact that Harrison was an emotionally generous man. He provided support and encouragement for a surprisingly wide range of people and projects: the ex Beatles, the Monty Python team, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ravi Shankar, and a host of fellow musicians. He didn’t just patronise them and give financial support, he shared their enthusiasms. He involved a lot of friends and acquaintances in his interests, which included gardening, Indian culture, motor racing and playing the ukulele. Harrison gave a lot, and received a lot in return. Although like all rich and famous people he mightn’t have known whether that fact alone made him attractive to others, the film does suggest he really did have a lot of friends.
Scorsese’s technique was impressionistic. Pointillism doesn’t show what Paris streets in springtime looked like, but it does convey what it felt like. So with Scorsese’s film. Not trying to tell me anything, to explain anything, or to make a point. Just showing. For instance Harrison’s relative role in the Beatles was not discussed. But the songs of that era shown revealed that Harrison’s voice was crucial to the band’s sound, and that George sang lead vocals on many more songs than is imagined. His musical tastes led the group sound as much as George Martin’s studio wizardry. Interviews show that much of the charm and wit associated with the Beatles originated with George. Both George and Ringo were celebrated for their humour apparently. The overall effect is to suggest that the group’s effect was made by four substantial contributors, not the two songwriters Lennon and McCartney with two support members in the background.
The film is about a famous pop singer and composer, and so it makes a difference if you are a fan or not. I’m not, really. I knew nothing of George after the Beatles. I only vaguely knew he had died, but not how. I didn’t even like the Beatles all that much, thought their music bland, that John Lennon frittered away his talent on heroin and Paul McCartney on slick (but very accomplished) commercial ditties. On the other hand I admired Lennon’s voice, and his committal (for a rock star) to social change. Scorsese showed that Harrison was equally admirable.
This is no hagiographic treatment though. Harrison was a famous rock star and like all such people had plenty of opportunity to be promiscuous. He was so during his two marriages. This is reported (in a foolishly evasive way by both Paul McCartney and George’s wife Olivia). Like most people, he took advantage of the situation he found himself in. Yet it is obvious he was the kind of man that Olivia wanted to stay with, even though her feelings had been badly hurt. Two discreet comments by interviewees, and we are left to draw our own conclusions.
Same goes for George’s spiritual values. He might not have understood the subtleties of Hindu mysticism (few have), but he wholeheartedly admired Ravi Shankar, who just as obviously loved George. Rather than make the obvious point that there was inconsistency in following a spiritually enlightened path while indulging a habit for hard drugs (who isn’t inconsistent? Show me a consistent man I’ll show you a boring subject for a biography), Scorsese shows George doing his best to explain Hinduism to western pressmen and making a mess of it. There is not the slightest doubt he didn’t really know what he was talking about: not the slightest doubt he was deeply sincere.
Other aspects of George’s personality are not touched on, or briefly. His sense of the injustices perpetrated by government and officialism that motivated his spikey sense of humour for instance.
The enduring image in the film for me at least was that George, while not getting anywhere with transcendental meditation, found his own way, and it was in his garden. At Kinfauns with Patti Boyd and on the 36 acres of Friar Park with Olivia, Harrison landscaped and planted, wherever he could with his own hands. By the time he wrote his autobiography he could dedicate it to “gardeners everywhere”. His garden was in some sense a reflection of his soul, his soul nurtured by his garden. So the garden features fairly extensively in the film.
So George went on his way, strong, bitter, gentle, charismatic, generous, and creative in his own non Beatles way. It’s this complex, inconsistent but very attractive image I am left with, so long after viewing the film. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad film after all.
©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.