George Harrison’s search for spiritual fulfillment might not have been so fervent had it not been for the otherworldly success of the Beatles. The band’s status gave him every possible luxury while he was barely out of his teens, and as a so-called “man of extremes,” he quickly sought the other end of the spectrum, wondering if spirituality and God (however you choose to define that word) might fulfill him where money and fame couldn’t. Convinced by sitarist Ravi Shankar that music could intensify his spiritual practice, which included heavy doses of meditation and Indian philosophy, Harrison began to merge his pursuits until, in many ways, his career and his spiritual journey became one. At least that’s how George Harrison: Living in the Material World presents it, detailing Harrison’s musical and spiritual paths in parallel over the running time of two feature-length parts. Director Martin Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi combine footage, photographs, postcards, and letters with Harrison’s largely remixed catalogue in a surprisingly pleasant stop-and-go fashion to convey how the musical and the immaterial can inform one another.
The film balances Harrison’s career and personal growth, gliding through his personal timeline briskly until about two-thirds into the second part, when the story reaches the relative lull in Harrison’s career and focuses very heavily on his immaterial pursuits. His attempts to let go of this physical world are the true focus of Scorsese’s film, but the story needed the rhythm and focus of Harrison’s predominantly fast-moving musical career to avoid the sluggishness it succumbs to.
Friends and family describe Harrison as a man capable of contradiction, possessing several lifetimes’ worth of both sweetness and anger, indicative of a man struggling with the disharmony of his higher pursuits and his human nature, the primary example coming from the love triangle between himself, his then-wife Pattie Boyd, and his close friend Eric Clapton. As Clapton tells it, once he sensed that his feelings for Harrison’s wife were becoming strong enough to act upon, he approached his friend to get everything out in the open. George’s response was surprisingly cavalier as he pointed out that these bodies and relationships are all just part of the meaningless material world. Yet when the flirtation between Clapton and Boyd escalated, Harrison angrily confronted the two at a party, giving his wife an ultimatum. The incident alerts us to Harrison’s inner conflict that perhaps wasn’t explored enough in this documentary—not so we can meet it with indictments of hypocrisy, but rather with an understanding of the contradictory nature of humans. Sure, several people in the film mention Harrison’s struggle to “be in the world but not of it,” but their words come off as empty clichés, or worse, they blame Harrison’s difficulties on those around him, as when his wife Olivia Harrison claims that the three other Beatles were her husband’s heaviest balls and chains in this world.
The film curiously glosses over certain hurdles in Harrison’s life. Several interviewers tip-toe around the topic of Harrison’s possibly wandering eye. Paul McCartney seems to simultaneously substantiate it and justify it when he labels George a “red-blooded male” just like most men. (He might as well have added, “He had needs!”) Olivia’s key to achieving a long-lasting marriage (“Don’t get divorced,” she says) only piles on the implications, and near the end of the film, she painfully stumbles around the issue, never coming out and revealing any indiscretions, but ending the conversation by stating that even a mere comment from George could have great power over a woman.
More puzzling than all this is the near-flippant mention of the musician’s return to drug use during a somewhat rocky stretch in his career that included the decay of his singing voice, with no clarification as to whether it was a choice made in weakness or as a conscious part of his spiritual technique. Certainly there’s no need to tarnish Harrison’s character, especially so many years after his death, but I don’t think that exploring some of these flaws, struggles, or decisions would necessarily do so. Perhaps the details of these incidents are irrelevant, but they might actually help the film’s goal of painting an honest portrait of a seeker yearning for purpose, with the emphasis of these very relatable shortcomings further celebrating the achievements of someone considered extraordinary.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.