When the Beatles first burst onto the pop culture landscape in the early '60s, the group's fans and the press had little trouble slotting three out of the four mop-topped rockers -- John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr -- into clearly defined identities. Specifically, they were the "Smart One," the "Cute One" and the "Funny One," respectively. But lead guitarist George Harrison's personality proved more difficult to sum up in a pithy two-word phrase. As a result, he was saddled with the vague moniker of the "Quiet One," which seemed to imply, quite unfairly, that he was somehow less interesting and vibrant than his bandmates. In the group's early years, it's true that Harrison took a backseat to the dynamic duo of Lennon and McCartney. But by the time the group disbanded in 1970, he had emerged as a strong artist and individual in his own right; in fact, his first post-Beatles record All Things Must Pass, outsold his former bandmates' initial solo albums, McCartney and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
Martin Scorsese's new two-part documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which premieres tonight at 9pm on HBO and concludes on Thursday at the same time, makes a strong case for Harrison's importance, both within the Beatles and as a solo musician. It also delves into his rich inner life and adventurous spirit: after being introduced to Indian music and religion in the mid-'60s, he avidly followed both for the rest of his life, bringing the sitar into the recording studio and practicing meditation and yogism at home. One of the ideas that is repeated throughout the film is that Harrison's fascination with mysticism stemmed from his desire to be absolutely prepared and calm as his own death approached. "Ultimately, he was travelling, as we all are, toward death," Scorsese remarked at a press conference following a screening of World at the New York Film Festival this past weekend. "So that's what we felt the film should be from the very beginning -- the beginning of that journey to the end of our lives."
Working with editor David Tedeschi, who also cut Scorsese's terrific Bob Dylan doc No Direction Home, the director and avid rock fan decided to avoid a strictly chronological biography for a more free-form approach. "We didn't want to state, 'This is the period when such-and-such happens,'" Scorsese said. "We tried to approach all the points of his life in an oblique way. Obviously, we had to deal with the period of the Beatles as a group and I wanted to deal with that immediately." Perhaps not surprisingly then, Part 1 of the documentary is dominated by Beatles backstory and while there are a few new insights to be gleaned, if you've watched any of the gazillions of Beatles-related movies over the years -- including the mid-'90s retrospective, The Beatles Anthology -- you'll feel like Scorsese is just going back over well-trod territory.
Fortunately, Part 2 covers fresher ground, spanning the release of All Things Must Pass through the whole Pattie Boyd/Eric Clapton (both of whom are interviewed in the film) drama up to the bizarre 1999 home invasion that almost left him and his second wife Olivia Harrison (who produced the film and also appears as a talking head) dead. Truth be told, it's almost a little too wide-ranging. It's admirable that Scorsese wanted to avoid the typical "and then this happened" chronological approach, but World has a bad habit of raising a fertile topic (such as Harrison's involvement in the ambitious, problem-plagued Concert for Bangladesh and the all-star band the Traveling Wilburys, as well as his various addictions and infidelities) and then dropping it to hurriedly move on to another bullet point. The film's chief strengths are its wealth of archival material (including rare home movies and early versions of signature Harrison tunes like "My Sweet Lord" and "Wah-Wah") and the terrific roster of talking heads, particularly McCartney, Starr (who shares a sweet, funny memory of his last meeting with Harrison prior to his death in 2001 from cancer), Phil Spector, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle (who befriended Harrison when he put up the funds for Monty Python to make their controversial religious satire Life of Brian) and Tom Petty (who tells an uproarious story about the time Harrison came over to his house with a trunkful of ukuleles). If Living in the Material World doesn't completely unravel the quiet enigma that was George Harrison, it allows his music and life to speak for itself.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World airs tonight and tomorrow night at 9pm on HBO. For more of Scorsese's comments from the NYFF press conference, read on.
On the Genesis of the Project
Scorsese: "It started around the time I was working on The Departed. It took us a little while to get the meeting and at the meeting, Olivia [Harrison] brought some items from the archive and we sort of figured out what the ground rules were. Then it took us another eight or nine months before we started editing footage together and figuring out a way to approach the story. I remember having meetings in my office while David [Tedeschi] was editing in the other room. It was a long process and I think David went through 100 hours of film before he even showed me selects. While I was working on Shutter Island, David and Margaret [Boddie, the executive producer] put together a book for me that had all these DVDs of what was in the archive. I put the first DVD in and this image of these tulips came up onscreen and I'm just watching by myself in this living room on a big TV screen and I don't know what it is. Then, I hear these footsteps and I see George's face come into frame. And he just stares at me for a long time. I realized: This is what's going to happen [while I make this movie] it's between the two of us. And that's the footage that opens the film."
On What Drew Him to the Subject Matter
Scorsese: "My interest in George's life -- apart from his music with the group and also his [solo] work afterwards -- is how he perceived life and what he was searching for. He was trying to find meaning and if not meaning, than some kind of spiritual transcendence in his life. One of the reasons I did the film is I was that I interested in those questions. That's how I started out in my life, having a mid-century Roman Catholic New York upbringing. I was very serious about [spiritual matters] for many different reasons. The only way I can express it is by making films like this. The questions have always been there and I think the great risk here was to embrace that and go with it as much as possible. A lot of people spend their lives trying to acquire things and once you do, what then? So that's always been in my head. It goes right back to thoughts I had in my film Mean Streets really, which is about a similar thing -- how to lead one's life in a world like that."
On How the Beatles' Interest in Eastern Mysticism Influenced Popular Culture
Scorsese: "The idea of a group of young people as powerful in our culture as the Beatles embracing another way of thinking and saying 'We've got a lot to learn,' was very exciting at the time. Anyone who was there remembers it as being very radical. I knew about Indian music somewhat because I remember seeing some Satyajit Ray films and afterwards I found a [sitar] record in the old Sam Goody's, Ravi Shankar's Improvisations. So I was becoming aware of this and [the Beatles] made me curious and very excited about other religions and other cultures. Here was the most powerful group in the last century of music history embracing this new -- for us in the West anyway -- way of thinking about life and the soul. That was interesting to me, opening your mind constantly."
On Re-Mixing the Music For the Movie
Scorsese: "We completely monitored the re-mixing process. At one point, we were talking about it being clean and clear but it wasn't rock and roll. It didn't have that certain kind of excitement to it. So we'd go back and work on it and went back again and this went on for a couple of years until we found the mix we liked. As someone says in the movie, words can only do so much talking about compassion and love -- musicians have the advantage in that they play music. That was George's ability, to express himself and find a kind of meaning in life through his music."
On the Lengthy Process of Making the Film
Scorsese: "It took five years. One of the reasons it takes that long is because it's the kind of thing that grows. There are no deadlines, it just happens to be finished now. For me, this whole year has been a series of films we've been working on for quite a while that just happen to be finished now. What's really important about this kind of film is living with it and thinking about it and screening it. To have all this going on and there's no pressure... well, there's pressure about distribution, but we learned that on the other ones we did. When we started this one, I told them there was no way we could guarantee a date. And once they said okay, we could aim for a certain date. We tried for that and we still were behind by a year. But because of that, everything about making this film was new, everything was fresh and everything was anticipatory."
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