And if you want to learn about Harrison the musician, that's not here either. Whether as an oversight or because he simply couldn't find anyone to make the case, Scorsese gives Harrison's supposedly innovative guitar work about 12 seconds of testimony from Clapton. Another oddness: Scorsese lets Harrison, in a voice-over, give himself credit for being so daring as to write a religious song like "My Sweet Lord." (It's a great single, but in fact, a lot of rockers at the time had done such a thing—Clapton and "Presence of the Lord," the Byrds and "Jesus Is Just Alright," etc.) But he doesn't detail the famous suit over the song, in which Harrison was ultimately found to have unconsciously plagiarized the 1963 girl-group classic "He's So Fine" to write it.
Here as elsewhere in the film, Scorsese makes elliptical reference to things but doesn't give viewers the full story. We get Billy Preston giving a short account of how the song was written, while he and Harrison were on tour with Delaney and Bonnie. (This was an American hippie singing ensemble of the era. Clapton and Harrison unaccountably found them irresistible.) The Preston comments seem to be a nod to the real story of the genesis of the song, which doesn't reflect well on Harrison. According to an account given by Delaney Bramlett to later Harrison biographers, he had deliberately made up for Harrison a sort of nonce song to illustrate how you could take a well-known tune, like "He's So Fine," and turn it into a religious song by adding lyrics about god. That interaction is the genesis of Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." In other words, Harrison had not only known the song was plagiarized, he'd stolen the plagiarized idea from Bramlett.
I take the point that it's hard, when it comes to profiling rock and movie stars, to get into their personal lives, which in the vast majority of cases are uncomfortable things for their spouses to talk about. (That's a nice way of saying that most stars, married or not, aren't monogamous.) To Scorsese's credit, and to her credit as well, he gets Olivia Harrison, who was with George from the mid-1970s to his death in 2001, to address Harrison's attractiveness to women and the resulting "challenges in the marriage." "Sometimes," she reflects, "people say, 'Well, what's the secret of a long marriage?' You don't get divorced!" And we get passing mention of the famous love triangle involving Harrison; his first wife, the model Pattie Boyd; and Clapton, which played itself out against the writing of Clapton's "Layla" and "Bell Bottom Blues" and resulted in Boyd's leaving Harrison.
There's a lot more to the story. In her memoir, Wonderful Tonight, Boyd says Harrison was highly controlling as a husband, pursued other women, lost interest in her, and then spent all his time puttering around his estate and filling it with Hare Krishna families. (The best part of the story, also not told in Living in the Material World, is how Clapton started going out with Boyd's 17-year-old sister Paula to get close to Boyd. A juicy footnote: Clapton relates in his own, oddly affectless autobiography about how, one gay evening at Harrison's house, Harrison took him aside and suggested he, Clapton, seduce Boyd so that Harrison could make a run at sister Paula. Ah, the '70s.)
Finally, the film really never investigates the real mystery of Harrison: What was he so morose about? Now, Ringo Starr is one who appreciates the cosmic joke life played on him. He has a cheerful acceptance of life's whimsy, hiding what no doubt has been his daily prayers since circa 1963: "Please, God, I don't know what a goofball like me did to deserve this life, but thank you very much, and please let me know if I'm doing anything that would cause you to end it." Harrison, by contrast, has always had a sense of the aggrieved about him. I just don't know what the source of it was. In Harrison's mini-autobiography at the front of I Me Mine, the unasked-for collection of his song lyrics, he seems mostly unhappy about … the travel indignities he suffered during the Beatles years. In the documentary, Scorsese plays the price-of-fame card heavily. "It's fun," Starr says, "early on. But then you want it to stop, and it never does."
Whatever the source, Harrison seems to have been on a quest to find some answers or relieve some pain. We see a bit of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the cartoony imp who founded the transcendental meditation movement and with whom the Beatles, led by Harrison, and some other pop icons of the day became infatuated in 1967. Here as elsewhere, we don't hear about the deflating punch line: How Harrison and Lennon, his biggest devotees, left his ashram in a storm after rumors (never really substantiated) came out that the Maharishi had been making passes at Mia Farrow.
Scorsese just doesn't seem interested in addressing the source of the impulse that moved Harrison into religious mysticism. (In some of the letters to his parents we hear in the film, Harrison's growing interests in this area sound like something out of Tommy. That's not good. Harrison's drug use, which he might have been using as self-medication, is also given sidelong mention, but the severity of it is never explored.) But that something pained Harrison it is taken for granted here. One nut in full Krishna regalia says that chanting "helped George overcome feelings of distress and anger." What feelings of distress and anger? Rock stars have emotional pain too, of course; I'm not disputing that. But everyone seems to accept that Harrison had some problems, but we never hear what they were.
The end of the documentary is the most memorable, as the lovely Olivia Harrison, who comes across as both gracious and down to earth, is allowed to speak at length about various aspects of their lives. It can't have been easy being married to a rock star. She gives a harrowing, mordantly funny account of the knife attack, and some moving words about Harrison's death, from lung cancer, in a hotel in Switzerland in 2001.
The sad thing about Living in the Material World is that Scorsese has so bowdlerized Harrison's life that he comes off as somewhat boring. One bit of testimony from Harrison himself inadvertently captures how the film makes him seem almost evanescent. He says he sometimes reflects on death and wonders what he would miss in life. He acknowledges his son who, he notes seriously, needs a father. "Other than that," he says, "I can't think of much of a reason to be here."