“George Harrison: Living in the Material World” is Martin Scorsese’s tender examination of the life of the quiet Beatle. It is exhaustive and loopy and it takes two nights to watch — Wednesday and Thursday on HBO.
Early on, Scorsese almost does something that would have been heretically bold but also smooth. There is a photograph of the Beatles together in their earliest days, before the Cavern or Hamburg, when it was just a bunch of adolescents in a skiffle band playing at church picnics. A baby-faced Harrison is among them, barely a teenager. That shot is then quickly followed by a scene where, surrounded by lawyers, Harrison and Paul McCartney jovially sign the paperwork that begins the litigiously endless dissolution of the Beatles.
Brilliant, I thought: Scorsese is going to skip the thoroughly documented years between 1959 and 1970; he’ll simply stipulate the facts we all know by heart, the story that began in working-class Liverpool and came to fractious finality on Abbey Road. Why not just bookend the Beatlemania era, which is common cultural memory anyhow? That way, Scorsese (and his viewers) could get down to the business of peeling away the essential mystery of Harrison, the band’s brooding, most spiritual member, who died of cancer in 2001.
But I was wrong. “Living in the Material World” circles around and very much dwells on the Beatles’ heyday for most of its first half, as any of the countless Beatles documentaries and books must. The first 20 minutes feel like a series of potential starts, as if what we’re viewing is a rough cut and Scorsese is inviting us to submit notes on suggested trims. Had this been a movie about anyone besides a Beatle, I’m not sure people would be willing to return for the second half Thursday.
But it is about a Beatle, and therefore one soaks it all up like a sponge, because a Beatles fan loves nothing more than fresh evidence. At long last we are talking only about George, and his talent — overshadowed as it was, which nevertheless produced some of the band’s finest and most unique sounds.
No one appears to have turned Scorsese’s project down — George Martin, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd, Astrid Kircherr; even Yoko Ono has something to say, and Phil Spector was interviewed just before he went to prison.
To the film’s great benefit, Harrison was a dedicated snapshot taker, postcard sender and home-movie maker, in addition to his interests in meditation, sitar, gardening and (incongruously) formula race cars. His wife, Olivia Harrison, is both a co-producer and a revealing interview subject for “Living in the Material World,” and she provided Scorsese’s gatherers access to heaps of previously unseen material.
One of the film’s subtle flaws is how apparent it is that Scorsese mainly assembled this film, leaving interviews and other legwork up to hired hands. It often feels like it was made at the documentary equivalent of a quilting bee.
Scorsese, who is plenty busy enough, has an affection for making documentaries about legendary musicians, going back to his seminal 1978 film about the Band (“The Last Waltz”) and more recently with a film about Bob Dylan. He also made a film for HBO last year about the writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz. What Scorsese’s recent documentaries all have in common is a friendliness that tends toward clubbiness; movies about famous people made by a famous person.
Certainly no one is clamoring for a George Harrison movie that seeks dirt or shakes the Beatle firmament. But we do like organization and clarity, even if the subject was prone to such nonlinear acts as running off with a maharishi. Strangely, on the matter of Harrison’s spiritual quests, the movie becomes less inquisitive.
For his reputation as a maker of unflinchingly tough feature films about dark-hearted men, Scorsese makes documentaries as one would pet a kitty. I found his kindness to be most revealing in its omission of Harrison’s mullet-era pop remake from 1987, “Got My Mind Set on You.” It was the singer’s first No. 1 hit in a dog’s age, but there is no mention of it, even in a movie that nears four hours. Plenty of minutes are spent talking about and admiring Harrison’s other, more credible late-’80s success as part of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup alongside Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
That’s what friends do when they make movies about their dearly departed friends: The garden gets weeded, with less regard for the story that the weeds may tell. For its epic investment, “Living in the Material World” still feels like only part of the story. Perhaps it’s time for Scorsese to make an HBO documentary about someone or something he doesn’t like.
(3 hours 28 minutes, in two parts) begins Wednesday at 9 p.m. on HBO and concludes Thursday at 9 p.m.