In the ending minutes of the documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Ringo Starr has what he calls a “Barbara fucking Walters” moment. Wiping away tears, Starr recalls the last words his lifelong pal and Beatles bandmate said to him before he died.
The Martin Scorsese-directed, five-years-in-the-making Living in the Material World premiered over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, now in its 38th year. The 210 minute (3 1/2 hour) two-part documentary, which coincides with the 10-year anniversary of Harrison’s death in 2001 from lung cancer, will begin airing on HBO starting October 5th, but screened three times at the film festival, including a free showing on the outdoor screen in Telluride’s town square, Elks Park.
“It’s been five years and it really took a good two years before I could just open my hand a bit,” George’s widow Olivia Harrison said at a screening Q&A of sharing her late husband’s keepsakes in research for the film. “There were letters that George never imagined his mother saved or that would be read. They were so revealing and just so honest; that really was the beginning of this project.”
One particular archived postcard came from a trip Harrison took with Paul McCartney, a school friend before the Beatles, in their teens. “They went on a hitchhiking holiday in Wales and he wrote a postcard home saying how much distance they had covered in a day, how proud they were and where they slept that night.” Olivia recalls. “It was just so sweet. All these things had been saved and had been in a tin box in the attic, a rusty old box that I opened, and I closed it and left it there for a very long time.”
Olivia now laughs at the initial struggle she had with letting go of the personal relics. “There were these little time capsules everywhere around the house – there was even a song titled ‘I’m Just the Jealous Kind’ – and it took me a very long time to bring them out from where they were. In fact, if this whole team and Marty hadn’t been so patient this movie would not have been made. I would show them the letters and then take them home.”
Starr, however, wasn’t the only one to weep during his interview, although his tears are the only ones caught on camera. Tom Petty describes Harrison’s fever in forming the Traveling Wilburys, how the group’s track ‘Handle With Care’ was coined, and a phone call from George after their Wilburys bandmate Roy Orbison passed away. (“Aren’t you glad it wasn’t you?” Harrison asked Petty.) “Tom Petty stayed for three hours; he wept,” producer Nigel Sinclair says of the interviews with George’s inner circle – McCartney, Klaus Voormann, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jim Keltner, Eric Clapton and even the wife they shared Pattie Boyd – that make up the film.
“Every single interview resulted in tears,” producer Margaret Bodde adds. “And this is years after George’s passing, because everyone was connecting with their true love of George and he touched them all in very obviously special way.” While he was known as the “quiet Beatle,” Scorsese’s documentary shows that George undeniably left a loud mark far beyond the riffs of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Other memorable moments include an afro-less Phil Spector describing the making of All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s six-time platinum 1970 solo album released following the break-up of the Beatles.
“There were a few titles that came up, but it really is about living in the material – it’s exactly what it’s about,” says Olivia about choosing Harrison’s less-popular 1973 follow-up for the title of the documentary.
“We had All Things Must Pass – we obviously played with that.” Sinclair says of picking the title. “Olivia was concerned because it was the title of an album, and not to make people think that was the making of the album. And then everyone played with other names and this name fought its way to the top of the pack and held its own. It became what the movie is about and I guess that’s why George chose that title for the album.”
While the film remarkably captures Harrison’s use of music to help him on his own spiritual quest, beyond the materialism that came with unending Beatles fame, the hardest part to stomach is Olivia’s recounting of the night an intruder repeatedly stabbed Harrison in his own home.
“I was reluctant because I didn’t want it to be the redefining factor of his life,” Olivia says of bravely deciding to detail how she fought back with the world upon Scorsese’s request. Dhani, Olivia and George’s only son, even admits in the film that the baffling incident took years off his father’s life, after his fight with cancer.
“First half I can watch quite easily because I’m watching another life,” Olivia admits of the final cut, “and then when the second half comes in, now I have to leave. Although I imagined what this documentary would be like and I guided them and I gave them a timeline of the important things in George’s life, I still had no idea it was going to be ‘this’ film. Marty just made something far beyond what I imagined. Certainly, not the movie I would have made because it would have been completely happy shiny people holding hands. It was Dhani who really said, ‘You know, you have to have the dark and the light, you have to show all the sides, you can’t sanctify him or vilify him, but George was a big one for contrast.”
Adds Olivia: “I feel lighter now that it’s done and it’s out. I know it’s something George wanted done and it’s honest. There isn’t anything in it that’s not true.”
Trailer for George Harrison: Living in the Material World:
• Exclusive Photos: The Private Life of George Harrison
• George Harrison in the Words of Friends and Family
• The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: George Harrison
• George Harrison Gets Back: Rolling Stone’s 1987 Cover Story
• George Harrison Hits the Big Screen in Scorsese Doc
• Photos: The Beatles Through the Years