“Dear Mum and Dad — The shows have been going great with everyone going potty, and everywhere we go we have about 20 police on motorbikes escorting us.” George Harrison might just have turned 20, with Britain in its first flush of Beatlemania, when he wrote this letter to his folks back in Liverpool. Throughout his eight-year tenure as the lead guitarist in the planet’s premier pop band, Harrison kept in touch with his parents, filling them in, calming their fears. “Don’t think that I’ve gone off my rocker, because I haven’t,” he wrote to his mother Louise during the Beatles’ 1968 transcendental-meditation trip. “But I now love you and everybody else much more than ever. So it’s not that bad, is it?”
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The “quiet Beatle” — the one who told an interviewer, “I’m even more normal than normal people” — was also the nicest Beatle: the most thoughtful and generous, the salver of wounds, forgiver of sins. That is the immediate and lingering message of George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s two-part, 3-1/2hr. documentary that premieres on HBO tonight and tomorrow, and will be repeated about a thousand times this month. A companion of sorts to Scorsese’s 2005 Bob Dylan: No Direction Home — another bio-pic about a singer-songwriter-guitarist who commenced upending musical convention before he was 20 — the Harrison doc has the stately, elegiac tone suitable to an engaging personality who died early, of lung cancer at 58 in 2001. Except for the ill-chosen title, which will force Madonna’s “Material Girl” into the mental iTunes of anyone over 35, Material World is a fitting, sonorous tribute to the pop idol, movie producer, spiritual searcher and constant gardener.
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Mixing archival footage with interviews of knowledgeable folks, Living in the Material World utilizes the elevated TV-doc style established by Ken Burns and evident in this week’s PBS doc Prohibition. Indeed, given Burns’s 19-hour maxiseries on jazz, and Scorsese’s godfathering of Boardwalk Empire, the two could easily have switched subjects. In the ’60s, when everyone else was obsessed with the Beatles, and with Dylan, Scorsese the furious young filmmaker paid little attention to the seismic changes in pop music. But something in him connected with another lower-middle-class Catholic kid the same age (Scorsese is three months older than Harrison) who had grown up in a rough city 3,300 miles away, and who roamed the world for enlightenment (as Scorsese did when he made the Buddhist film Kundun) without ever losing his neighborhood accent.
Whole movies (Nowhere Boy) have been made about the Liverpool youth of Harrison’s band mate John Lennon. George’s brothers Harry and Peter are still around to offer reminiscences. Yet Material World provides almost no anecdotes about George’s pre-Beatle life, other than that he went to the same Dickensian boys’ school as Paul McCartney. (“In fact, Dickens had taught there,” Paul says in the doc. “That’s how Dickensian it was.”) Within minutes Scorsese has us on the top deck of a double-decker bus where, at Paul’s urging, George played Bill Justis’ twang-guitar “Raunchy” for John and was admitted into the group, then known as The Quarrymen. “John was embarrassed,” Harrison recalled in a later TV interview. “I looked like I was about 10 years old.” But Lennon, who knew so little about guitars that his had only four strings, recognized George’s proficiency. Harrison also lent equilibrium to the jarring Lennon and McCartney. “He was a catalyst in the band, you see,” says Klaus Voormann, the German artist who met the lads when they played the bars in Hamburg. “Paul and John were so different — and George brought a peace.”
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The doc’s hour-and-a-half first episode chronicles the Beatle years, when the world fell in love not just with the Fab Four’s music but also with this quartet of distinct personalities. John was the smart one, Paul the cute one, Ringo Starr the happy one and George…the other one. In group interviews, John would make the acerbic jokes, with George only occasionally topping him. When, in their early fame, the lads are asked if they’re millionaires yet, they shake their moptops no; the followup is: “Where does all the money go?” John: “Well, a lot of it goes to Her Majesty.” George: “She’s a millionaire.” Literally confined by their celebrity, the Beatles often hid in bathrooms from their fans, handlers and parasites. Hid together. “That was the good thing about being four — we all shared the experience,” Harrison said decades later, adding the riddle, “How many Beatles does it take to change a light bulb?” and pausing to smile before answering, “Four.”
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Harrison could be assertive, in his quiet way. When the Beatles came to London to audition for Parlophone Records producer George Martin, the first takes were rough and unpromising, so Martin took the boys into the control room to listen to how they sounded — “‘And if there’s anything you don’t like, tell us,’” he says in the doc. “And George was the one who took the leap, and he said, ‘Well, I don’t like your tie, for a start.’” That bit of cheek endeared him to Martin, who promptly signed the Beatles and produced and arranged their music for the next seven years. At the end, even George felt cramped by Martin’s patronage. Engineer Ken Scott remembers when Harrison had instructed him to give a raspy sax underscoring to “Savoy Truffle” on the White Album. Martin “listened and said, Isn’t it a bit bright? Isn’t it a bit toppy?’ And George just turns around and said, ‘Yeah. And I like it.’” Harrison was confident enough to give his old teacher a dirty look.
If John led the Beatles into the drug culture, George was the guide to their spiritual period. At an acid party hosted by Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager (whose almost total absence from Scorsese’s film is another strange lapse), the lads tried LSD. Harrison later described the experience to Dick Cavett as “a very concentrated version of the best feeling I’d ever had in my life…Just everything, everything was perfect.” But a 1967 visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury gave him a harsher view of the drug culture. “It wasn’t all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like any addiction. So at that point, I stopped taking it — the dreaded lysergic. That’s when I really went for the meditation.”
He became fascinated with the traditional Indian music of Ravi Shankar, which inspired “Within You Without You” on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and introduced the other Beatles to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Paul calls him “his giggly little Indian guy”) and transcendental meditation. “So I’d got myself to the point where, OK, I need a mantra. You know, where do you go? You don’t go to Harrods and get a mantra.” But he found it — the mantra, the pacific placidity — and tried to keep it. “It’s a big change in your life when you start making the journey inward,” he said, the hint of a smile covering his awkwardness at explaining an Eastern concept to a Western journalist. Harrison must have felt the same challenge in telling his mother about the Maharishi. “He’s not taking any of our money,” he wrote home. “All he’s doing is teaching us how to contact God.”
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In the doc, Ringo says, “We’d all learned to grow together, and some days one’d grow a little taller, and the next day someone else would grow taller. That’s how we were.” But when the group stopped touring and being one another’s 24/7 pals and prison buddies, and as Lennon, McCartney and Harrison developed their own voices as composers, the strains erupted, the sutures split. “It was like a marriage,” Paul says. “You know, you love each other but you’re getting fed up.” Each member thought the other three were plotting against him. Ringo announced he was leaving in 1967; when he returned to Apple headquarters, George had decorated the whole studio with flowers.
Harrison was blooming as a songwriter — “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” were keepers from the Abbey Road LP — but many good Harrisongs, like “All Things Must Pass,” were rejected by John and Paul. Finally, even the peaceable Beatle had had enough. “I thought, I’m quite capable of being relatively happy on my own. And if I’m not able to be happy in this situation, well, I’m gettin’ out of here.” Earlier, when Harrison had said he was bolting, John had proposed filling his slot with George’s dear friend Eric Clapton, who at the time was desperately in love with George’s wife Pattie Boyd and wrote “Layla” for her (the rocking part, not the symphonic ballad part, which was by Jim Gordon). Clapton had confessed his ardor for Pattie to George, whose measured response was, to Eric, “almost givin’ me carte blanche.”
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Clapton and Boyd later married, with Harrison’s more-or-less blessing; and in 1978 George married Olivia Arias, who is one of this film’s producers and its prime emotional guardian. Their son Dhani, dad’s spitting image, reads George’s letters to his mum. He also recalls a Family Ties dissonance in his teen years. “To rebel in my family,” Dhani says, “was to go to…a semi-military school. We did CCF [Combined Cadet Force] one day a week. That used to piss him off, me walking around in an Air Force uniform.” Ever the pacifist, George now devoted much of his time redesigning the gardens in the Friar Park estate where he and Olivia lived. At the beginning and end of the film he is seen peeking through the foliage and humming the jaunty ’20s tune “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
All four ex-Beatles made their musical mark in the ’70s (even Ringo, with “Photograph”), but no one’s oeuvre surprised as much as Harrison’s. From the Apple reject songs and those composed after the breakup, George and producer Phil Spector compiled All Things Must Pass, the first triple album for a solo performer. He organized the Concert for Bangladesh, among the first all-star music benefits, and continued as a dulcet musical force for the rest of the decade. By then he had started Handmade Films, initially as a way to finance the $4 million production Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “He mortgaged his house to put up the money for this movie,” says Python Eric Idle, “because he wanted to see [it]. Which is still the most anybody’s paid for a cinema ticket.” And because Harrison missed being in a band, in the late ’80s he corralled superstar pals Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne and formed The Traveling Wilburys. When Orbison died in 1988 at 52, Harrison called Petty and said, “Aren’t you glad it’s not you?”
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It would be George’s turn soon enough. He almost died when a deranged man invaded Friar Park and stabbed him; Olivia, showing the same protective instincts as Wendy Murdoch had for her Rupert, subdued the intruder. But George was already suffering from cancer. Ringo recalls visiting Harrison, flat on his back from chemo treatments, and telling his old friend that he had to go to Boston to see his daughter Lee, being treated for a brain tumor. George instantly asked, “Do you want me to come with you?” Recalling this moment, Ringo sheds a silent tear, then says, “God, it’s like Barbara F—in’ Walters here, isn’t it?”
Lee survived, but Harrison eventually surrendered to throat and lung cancer. He and Olivia spent a last lovely summer in Fiji, preparing for the end and taking stock of their life together; George told her, “I hope I wasn’t a bad husband.” He died in a Hollywood Hills mansion on Nov. 29, 2001. “There was a profound experience when he left his body,” Olivia recalls. “Let’s just say you wouldn’t need to light the room if you were trying to film. He just lit the room.”
That description fits with Formula One driver Jackie Stewart’s memory of the man’s gift for raising people’s spirits. “It wasn’t a skill,” he says. “It was an aura.” That aura suffused George Harrison’s music and his life, and resounds throughout Scorsese’s fine, ultimately plaintive tribute. Let a million fans smile while watching Living in the Material World, and a million guitars gently weep.