Arena: George Harrison – The Living World Part One Review

ARENA: GEORGE HARRISON – LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD: Saturday 12th November, BBC2, 9.45pm

Though undoubtedly a musical legend and pop culture icon, George Harrison never garnered as much attention as some of his former band mates, so it makes you wonder what Martin Scorsese, who is famously drawn to outwardly conflicted and tormented characters, saw in the “quiet Beatleâ€?.

After watching the first part of George Harrison: Living In The Material World, it becomes clear that the famed director has captured something of the guitarist’s inner-struggle and although he was quiet, he had plenty to say. The big draw is Harrison’s hidden story and unless you have an incredible wealth of Beatles knowledge (as I’m sure many of you do) you will be surprised by how gifted, conflicted and deep he was.

Scorsese is no stranger to music documentaries. Although he’s more famous for gangster flicks, his work on rock-docs The Last Waltz, Shine a Light and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan prove that he knows the territory. His work on Living In The Material World continues that legacy, which captures a mind-bogglingly expansive narrative. His look into Harrison’s personal transformation works brilliantly as an archetype for a generation in flux and this movie reminds us of his pivotal role in the band that changed the world.

The range of behind-the-scenes photos and footage is incredible and though the interviews sometimes feel trivial, they ultimately come together to paint a portrait you won’t get from any other biography. Of course, the soundtrack is excellent and Scorsese draws from the wealth of songs in the Beatle’s huge selection to neatly set every mood.

The film might benefit from a narrator, as it jumps quickly between events and guiding yourself through its epic timeframe isn’t always easy. Scorsese’s use of Harrison’s letters home serves this role nicely and provides some captivating insight into his thoughts, but isn’t employed nearly enough.

Despite its many highlights, Scorsese walks a dangerous line throughout the documentary as some parts might bore those that are well versed in Beatles history, while others confuse those that aren’t. Unfortunately, this problem is unavoidable when making a film about music immortals such as Harrison, and the director does his best to focus on aspects of George’s life that resonate with us all.

What you get here that you can’t get anywhere else is insight. This is a study of Harrison on a scale that has never been approached before and Scorsese rightly avoids a factual timeline of George’s fascinating life, but instead uses anecdotes, personal reflections and music to bring us into the man’s soul. That Scorsese is able to create such an absorbing personal journey using only talking heads, photographs, archival footage and a soundtrack is incredible and speaks to the depth and complexity of the subject matter as much as it does to the director’s storytelling skill.

Despite problems with the film’s complexity, which can be over or underwhelming depending on your familiarity with the Beatles, Scorsese is once again able to produce a multi-layered and beautifully intricate character study, showing George Harrison as never before. The first installment takes us to the end of George’s Beatles career and with further insight into his later life to come, the second will doubtlessly add even more to our concept of the man. After seeing Living In The Material World, you won’t ever think of George as “the quiet Beatleâ€? again.

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