He was living with his parents in a tenement block on the Lower East Side in New York City and was trudging down the stairs from their third-floor apartment on the way to a class at NYU. “The radio was on,” he recalls, “and a voice came on saying that this was the first time in America that we’d hear this new group from England.” Scorsese wasn’t expecting much. “Prior to that, English rock’n’roll, well, it was Lonnie Donegan, the skiffle groups, Cliff Richard and people like that.” But then I Want To Hold Your Hand crackled over the airwaves. “I stopped and listened to the song and couldn’t believe what I’d heard. It was like a whole new world.”
The music of The Beatles has stayed with the acclaimed filmmaker ever since. Now 68, the New Yorker’s knowledge of 20th-century guitar music veers towards the scholarly. Any number of his feature films echo to the strains of the six-string, and his passion for that sound has thus far prompted four of his documentary films: The Last Waltz (1978), with The Band; Feel Like Going Home (2003), his segment of a seven-part The Blues series produced for PBS; No Direction Home (2005), exploring Bob Dylan’s early years in the spotlight; and Shine A Light (2008), his exquisitely rendered Rolling Stones concert film.
Now there’s a fifth music documentary, and Scorsese has come almost full circle -- back to 1963 and those first few chords that stopped him in his tracks on his way to class -- taking on the story of The Beatles’ guitar player, later a celebrated solo artist, in George Harrison: Living In The Material World. Like No Direction Home, it is a three-and-a-half-hour epic, although while the Dylan film concentrated on a six-year period, Living In The Material World tells Harrison’s tale from its humble beginnings in 1943 to its tragic end in 2001.
“I was interested in Harrison himself,” says Scorsese, “and once we started thinking, letting this idea gestate, I had a sense that this would be a film that deals not only with the phenomenon of the group The Beatles but which also goes far beyond that.”
The idea for the documentary came from the former Beatle’s widow, Olivia Harrison, who provides much of the unseen footage and previously unreleased tracks that shine through the film (treats include the first-ever recordings of songs from the albums, All Things Must Pass and Living In The Material World). She also serves as a producer. “After meeting Olivia for the first time,” adds Scorsese, “I just listened.”
Olivia Harrison picks up the tale. “I originally had no intention of making a film about George,” she admits, “but then I began to feel a little bit of pressure from production companies that somebody was going to make this story. So I thought that it is better that it is done with George’s archive, and knowing his sensibilities, knowing what might be important to him. And who better than Marty to tell this story?”
At their first meeting Harrison brought Scorsese a few treasures from her husband’s archive — he was something of a collector and had planned to make his own documentary one day — including a series of postcards and letters he had written home while still a young man touring with The Beatles. “When I spoke to Marty I showed him letters that George had written when he was young, in his early 20s, when he was on the road,” continues Harrison. “What the letters expressed was that even though everything was happening at that time, he still expressed that this wasn’t ‘it’.
“I believe that is what interested Marty. He was interested in what it is that makes a person get through life in a certain way. You are given a set of circumstances; how does each individual deal with those circumstances? Do they transcend that? Do they keep pushing boundaries, having realisations, or are they completely locked to a false sense of values and insecurities?”
George Harrison pushed the boundaries. The Beatles’ dalliance with Indian mysticism is well known, but for Harrison it remained a guiding light throughout his life, from both the musical connection with sitar genius Ravi Shankar and the esoteric understanding gleaned from the mystical thinker Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
“George Harrison achieved material wealth and celebrity at such a young age,” says Scorsese. “Then where do you go? Do you do more of that? More importantly, what will it give you? Where will that sense of satisfaction be, that nourishment of the spirit? That’s the problem.”
It was a problem for which Harrison sought resolution throughout his life, his mystical quest lying at the heart of Scorsese’s film, hence the title (taken, of course, from the artist’s 1973 LP). The director himself is a spiritually minded man, raised a devout Catholic. He once had ambitions of joining the priesthood and the fevered angst that burned so brightly in Mean Streets rages through many of his films.
“Whatever you mention, Martin Scorsese has a some deeper knowledge of it,” says Harrison. “He is very, very interesting and I think the way we made the film was just to talk about feelings, about George, what George would say, what he would do, what he liked.”
The film gives a George’s-eye view of Harrison’s life in the world’s most famous pop group, and beyond.
“The film tells George’s story as it was for him to be in The Beatles,” says Dumfries-born filmmaker Nigel Sinclair, who worked with Scorsese on No Direction Home, and who also produces alongside Harrison on Living In The Material World.
“You look at The Beatles sequences in this film and they are very much The Beatles through George’s eyes. That gives it freshness and a visceral tongue that is very rejuvenating. It feels very much what it was like to be one of those guys, and for all four of them it was obviously very different.”
There’s a famous tale that when Harrison was asked what it was like to be a Beatle, he retorted along the lines of: “I don’t know. I have been a Beatle since I was 16. What’s it like not to be a Beatle?” Despite his reputation as the quiet member of the band, he could prove a witty and extrovert fellow.
“I think the whole film will be a revelation for many people because George was considered to be quiet, contemplative and serious,” says his widow. “That is the concept people have, yet the film shows that he was so outgoing, and embraced so many people and friends, and was an extrovert in some ways. In his life, to be out in the world, he was as dark as he was light, and as lost as he was found, like every one of us.”
The film does not shy away from the darkness that shadowed the light in Harrison’s life, incorporating tales of marital turmoil with first wife Pattie Boyd and close friend Eric Clapton (who is a thoroughly beguiling interview throughout the film, as are Phil Spector and the two surviving Beatles); his bubbling anger that occasionally erupts in public; and his intermittent dabbling with hallucinogenic drugs.
“It is a daunting project to think about in many, many ways, including ‘Would I have the proper time for it?’,” reveals Scorsese. “And also we have to show both sides of his struggle. Or we have at least to intimate both sides, and Olivia was open to that.”
She concedes that it wasn’t always easy. “The entire project has been challenging to me,” she says. “I look back now at how closed I was at the beginning and I am grateful that Marty was so patient with me. My big fear was that no-one will get what George was really like inside, that they would look at the external and no matter how many layers of the onion they peel back, who is going to find the real George in there? To my absolute amazement Marty started from the middle. He started from the core and worked his way up.”
Has making the film given Harrison any fresh insights into, or understanding of, her husband? “Not a different understanding, but I have maybe found more compassion,” she concludes. “Looking back, I always think, ‘Gosh, I hope I was forgiving enough or compassionate enough for who he was, because of his past.’ We all have a past but George’s was so intense. And having listened through his archive, I think I now love his music even more.”
George Harrison: Living In The Material World screens in selected cinemas for one night only on Tuesday. It is released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 10; Olivia Harrison’s book of the same title is published by Abrams on Monday.