“I was so young when I was born, my eyes could not yet see,” begins “Crackerbox Palace,” a song written and recorded by George Harrison for his 1976 album Thirty Three & 1/3. It’s not the first track that leaps to mind when one remembers the late ex-Beatle (for me, that would be the hand jive-cum-raga “Awaiting on You All” from his debut), but it’s softly exemplary of his songwriting style in ways that his earlier lead guitar showcases are not. The both plaintive and hopeful melody is first insinuated by Harrison’s signature double-tracked slide guitar before his voice—at the time weakened by hepatitis—enters with the above couplet, a narration so earnest it at first appears prosaic.
It’s inevitable that one will read this line as a rejoinder to Bob Dylan’s purple paradox from “My Back Pages”: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Harrison, who frequently collaborated with Dylan, was in some ways his compositional inverse, eschewing lyricism for the deceptive plainness of declaration that obviates interpretation. “Here comes the sun, and I say ‘It’s all right.’” “Beware of darkness, it can hit you.” “And you know that you can’t get away, and you know that you can’t hide it from yourself.” These words are so concrete, so mantric, that the effect they produce is as bewildering as that of Dylan’s literary glut: Both men sing like they know something vital that we don’t, something that they aren’t going to simply surrender. (Complicating this last consideration is each artist’s tendency to pilfer melodies and lines at will from other sources; Harrison from James Taylor and the Chiffons, Dylan from…well, take your pick.)
Given these similarities, tackling a George Harrison biography would seem a natural step for Martin Scorsese after the two-part Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home. And despite that film’s myriad shortcomings and severe abbreviating of the musician’s story, it excelled at conceptualizing the aesthetic climate that demanded the emergence of a Dylan-like figure, and at following the traditions in folk, blues, gospel, country, et al that informed the style of the particular Dylan that came along. Almost nothing of interest was described about Dylan’s early or private life, which freed the narrative from the psychoanalytical reductiveness that weighs down most docs about celebrities. It would be an exaggeration to say that George Harrison: Living in the Material World, by contrast, takes the Freudian route: His brothers say a few words about his childhood, but there’s virtually no information about his relationship with his parents until his mother dies toward the end of the first hour. The arc of Scorsese’s Harrison portrait is, rather, drawn from Alfred Adler: Within 20 minutes of screen time, George has become the middle child in the Beatles family. This experience, according to the film, not only influences the remainder of his life, but defines its entirety.
The problem with this approach is not only that we’ve seen it before in accounts such as The Beatles Anthology, the talking-head and archival rhythm of which Scorsese apes quite closely. Focusing on Harrison’s frustration as a marginalized member of the Best Band Ever, rather than the strides he made through the years as an instrumentalist and composer, tends to duplicate the band’s stifled atmosphere. For example, we hear about him writing the self-admittedly adolescent “Don’t Bother Me” while ill, and of George Martin’s prodding him to come up with “Within You Without You” for the magnum opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But there’s nothing about the raggedy “You Like Me Too Much,” the satirical “Taxman,” or the groundbreaking Eastern homage “Love You To.” (Predictably, the recording session that yielded “Norwegian Wood” is described in detail both via archival interviews and new conversations with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.) The development of Harrison’s electric-guitar style, one of the most technically accomplished in 1960s British pop, is also elided, though at one juncture an entry from his diary explains how he “rediscovered” the guitar after getting fed up with the sitar.
So what appears to be missing from Living in the Material World is irksome, and it sets the doc up for failure: There’s nowhere to go after Harrison finds peace with Eastern philosophy and blows off the steam he accumulated in the Beatles as a solo artist and humanitarian rocker. But the existing content, and its slight revelations, is not without worth. It’s not surprising that the primary conflict Scorsese teases out from Harrison’s life is between fame and spirituality: The director once inanely referred to All Things Must Pass as liturgical music, despite Phil Spector’s spectacularly secular production. The editing, however, at times cleverly balances these irreconcilable aspects of Harrison’s life, such as the pirouette it performs from the “spiritual bankruptcy” evinced by John Lennon’s comparison of the Beatles to Jesus Christ into George’s disavowal of Western religion. Soon after, Eric Clapton astonishingly explains the Zen attitude George took toward the love triangle between he, Clapton, and Patti Boyd. “We were swapping a lot of things in those days,” Clapton admits. “George, you know…he really had an understanding of it all as just maya.” This calm, hedonistic incident inspired the fiery torment of the Layla album?
So many episodes in Harrison’s later life would require their own 80-minute documentaries to satisfy (Handmade Films, for instance, which began because Harrison simply wanted to see another Monty Python movie), but this attempt at a centralized canon of emotions and “doings” sells short Harrison’s legacy. It’s a legacy of odds, ends, and misfires, as well as some of the most honest and most singable pop-rock music of its time. And it influenced other artists incalculably, an additional avenue left unexplored by the film. Ultimately, Scorsese can’t be criticized for attempting to pay tribute to Harrison through a recounting of his early trials and the gestation of his personal values, but Living in the Material World fails when it takes the music as a given: For those who don’t know Harrison’s work, it’s a lousy primer, and for those who love his work, it feels weirdly repressed and nearly mute on the topic.
Was this originally broadcast at 720p on HBO? It hardly looks it. The newer interviews are jaggedly crisp and the archival material occasionally breaks down into angry pixels. Oddly, film footage of George Harrison from the '80s has held up the best, and has a numinous glow. The sound represents the music clips quite well, though they're often much brighter than they sound on record.
The supplements are a disappointment: Only a few extended interviews about Harrison's youth and some words from admirers, plus a collection of bonus music-related tracks. Beatle fanatics will want to see and hear one of the latter, however, wherein George Martin, his son, and Harrison's son pile into an engineering booth to playback never-before-heard solo guitar tracks from the "Here Comes the Sun" session. Total running time of unissued music heard in the clip: 10 seconds, before which Martin stares off into space for thrice that length.
After this, Ringo's gonna need Werner Herzog to make his life story interesting.