A bloated hagiography that affords less insight the longer it goes on, George Harrison: Living in the Material World spends nearly four hours on the life and times of the quiet Beatle in order to let us know that he was a gentle, artistic soul interested in Eastern spirituality. As anyone even remotely familiar with the Beatles or Harrison’s solo career already knows such things, it’s disappointing to discover that Martin Scorsese’s documentary has little else to say. Instead, it spends copious time simply regurgitating in more or less chronological order—albeit with an assured editorial structure that favors cutaways from raucous performances to quiet still photos, and occasional jumps back and forth in time—his rise to iconic superstardom with the Fab Four, his eventual desire to branch out on his own creatively, and his subsequent embrace of Eastern mysticism and musical traditions. As Harrison is no longer alive to comment on his past, Scorsese relies on archival interviews with his subject as well as with a cast of expected supporting voices (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd, George Martin), all of whom relay that Harrison was—hold your breath!—an unassuming man with immense talent and a giant heart, one for whom inner peace was diligently sought through an openness to different cultures.
That Living in the Material World shines scant illuminating light on Harrison’s story is all the more frustrating for its immense length. At 208 minutes, Scorsese delivers an enormous wealth of footage that will likely satisfy completist fans (cheeky interviews from the Beatles’ early years, clips of Harrison in the ‘70s watching a recording of himself from two decades earlier, Clapton frankly commenting on his love triangle with Harrison and Boyd), but none of it exposes anything that hasn’t already long since been in the public record. While McCartney and Starr are predictably amusing in relaying stories about Harrison, the doc takes a generally straight-line approach to its tale without ever delivering a shrewd bit of criticism or unexpected revelation about career or character. Especially in its distended second half, which touches on his solo records, his participation in the Traveling Willburys, and his near-fatal stabbing and struggle with cancer, Scorsese’s nonfiction work comes across as just a dutifully exhaustive bit of historical preservation—a modus operandi that’s hardly insulting or pointless, but one that, given the considerable amount of effort that went into culling and assembling its material, leaves the film feeling rote and mechanical, and thus something of a missed opportunity.