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Of the four Beatles, George Harrison remains the most interesting, mostly because there doesn't seem to be much out there about him outside of the multitude of Beatles books and documentaries. People love to talk about John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr makes sure everyone remembers they are still around by continuing to work. For George, it always seemed like the one thing you needed to get inside the man was his music. He was also the only Beatle to write an autobiography, titled I Me Mine, but that was published in 1978, was much too short and was written in collaboration with a master of spin, Derek Taylor. Even after George's 2001 death, there were no major documentaries made, by the request of Olivia Harrison, his widow. Then, in 2010, director Martin Scorsese received Olivia's blessing and set to work on George Harrison: Living in the Material World. The two-part documentary aired on HBO in the fall and was finally released on DVD in May.
The film, named after George's 1973 song and album, paints an incredibly in-depth picture of George, showing off the multiple facets of this complicated man. Scorsese keeps the documentary on a chronological path for most of the first part. Even at the start of the Beatles, George set himself apart from Paul and John, as interviews with their Hamburg friends, Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr, show. His years with the Beatles continue through the second part, with the last 90 minutes covering the innovative Concert for Bangla Desh, All Things Must Pass and the Traveling Willburys. For the last section of the second part, Living in the Material World sticks to George's last years as he dealt with cancer, with touching thoughts from Olivia, Paul and Ringo.
Voormann and Kirchherr are just two of the many subjects who are interviewed that don't often get their say in documentaries on the Beatles. Scorsese (who didn't do the interviews himself) includes fantastic quotes from Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Phil Spector and other friends of George. It is great to hear stories from people you don't hear from everyday, especially from Clapton, who talks about George like a brother. Honestly, the most boring stories are the ones from Paul and Ringo, only because we've heard their impressions of George over and over again elsewhere.
Scorsese also handles George's spirituality in a way that I don't think others would. He understood that this aspect of his subject's life was easily the most important, not the music or the success.
The DVD presentation of the documentary is very good, as expected. As with any documentary, the footage is culled from multiple sources, so visual quality varies. Sound is also incredible. I'm sure the Blu-ray would have sounded even crisper, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the DVD does the job, presenting the music beautifully and the interviews clearly.
The first part, which lasts just over an hour and a half, and the second, which runs a hair under two hours, are on their own discs. The second disc is home to a few bonus features, which includes a couple of extra interviews with Paul and Jeff Lynne and short segments on other topics. It would be nice if the first disc had some extra features, such as full performances or a selection of George's music videos, but what we get is satisfactory.
For fans of George and the Beatles, this is an essential film, showing aspects of his life that few other books and documentaries ever have before. As for Scorsese, this is just another fantastic music documentary to add to his resume. Living in the Material World is an engrossing journey about one of the most spiritual and talented figures in music history.