by Tony Dayoub
I wouldn't call myself a hardcore George Harrison fan. But, as I get older, when anyone asks me the oft-repeated "Who is your favorite Beatle?" question, my response has increasingly been George. His passing touched me more than that of any star I can remember, and what I knew of the man or his work was relatively little. Perhaps it is because of out of the four, Harrison seemed to lead the most aspirational — and inspirational — life. His growing disdain for all of the empty trappings of fame was at odds with the fact that it was celebrity which facilitated the spiritual journey upon which he embarked. With equal parts of wonder and world-weary cynicism informing his every move, Harrison was a living paradox, as the title of this HBO documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, alludes to. Still Harrison's lifestyle was one worth emulating, so it is no surprise that director Martin Scorsese, a man who himself has grappled with the dichotomy of the metaphysical versus the worldly, would be drawn to telling his story in this new HBO documentary.
Destined to be presented in two parts on the cable channel later this week, Scorsese invests the first half with a kineticism reflective of the youthful energy of the Beatles and the teenage fans which propelled them to stardom. Most of the memorable early songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney dominate for the first hour of part 1, gradually receding as the group attains a higher consciousness — mostly as a result of Harrison's realization that fame's rewards were fleeting and finite. Harrison's experimentation with LSD and meditation are only the beginning of a natural progression towards Eastern spirituality and a fondness for Indian music, all of which bleed into his compositions. Scorsese brings these — songs like "Here Comes the Sun," "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" — to the fore, and the effect is that of one plugging Harrison's soul into an amplifier, because it is here that the documentary really soars.
Of course, it is at this point that Harrison (as did his bandmates) outgrows the group dynamic, precipitating their breakup. Scorsese uses this milestone as his demarcation point between the two halves. The second half of the film is as quiet and intimate as Harrison became in his later years. And like the musician, just a bit more elusive. Because his time with the Beatles was so well-documented, Scorsese almost uses the first chapter as a primer for the uninitiated. Yet it is the second chapter that more precisely captures the contradictory aspects of the deepest Beatle — his sarcasm, cosmic concerns, edgy humor, love of family.
Scorsese cuts together a series of images in which Harrison often looks straight through the screen at you and seems alarmingly present yet inescapably unfathomable. Interspersed within these haunting images are typical talking head shots and video from talk show appearances, which unavoidably make the film play like a conventional documentary preaching to the already converted. Occasionally, when one begins to bristle at the beatification of the all too mortal Harrison, Scorsese does cut to an anecdote demonstrating the man's feet of clay, usually by McCartney, who comes off as a bit envious, or Ringo Starr, who seems to hold a genuine fraternal love for George.
But what other monumental pop figure in recent memory is as deserving of such devotion? Living in the Material World ultimately transcends its orthodoxy to become a fitting tribute to Harrison. For his fans — his most loyal and most casual alike — it is a music-filled movie one wants to wrap around oneself like the coziest of warm blankets. However, the film's real revelation is reserved for movie lovers. This jewel — one of the best from this year's festival — is also one of the best films of the year.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World is playing at the 49th New York Film Festival at 6:30 pm Tuesday, October 4th, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500
It premieres October 5th and 6th (in two parts) on HBO.