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Why George Harrison’s family asked Martin Scorsese to direct ‘Living in the Material World’

In 2011, fans of the so-called ‘quiet Beatle’ got a real treat with Martin Scorsese’s insightful documentary film George Harrison: Living in the Material World. The 208-minute documentary details George’s rise to fame with The Beatles and follows his story beyond the group’s break up in 1970 with the commentary from a selection of some of the late star’s close friends and family. 

Following Harrison’s death in 2001, a number of film production companies approached his widow, Olivia Harrison, about making a biopic film to cover his extraordinary life. She declined because George had wanted to tell his life story through his video archive. Upon meeting renowned director Martin Scorsese, Olivia had decided that he was the only one who could take on the task of telling George’s true story.

It appeared that Olivia was impressed with Scorsese’s particular interest in Harrison. Scorsese said at the time that he was attracted to the project because the “subject matter has never left me…the more you’re in the material world, the more there is a tendency for a search for serenity and a need to not be distracted by physical elements that are around you.

“His music is very important to me, so I was interested in the journey that he took as an artist. The film is an exploration. We don’t know. We’re just feeling our way through.” Scorsese later added: “I’ve always had a special interest in how [George] perceived life and what he was searching for.”

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Olivia and Dhani Harrison warmed to Scorsese as they wanted a director who could document his spiritual journey as well as his life as a rock ‘n’ roll icon. They wanted someone who would delve to the very heart of the man himself rather than just rattling off reels of career highlights.

As Olivia once explained: “George’s outer life was well known and that would be an easy thing to do. You could put together that story, but the inner life was going to be impossible. And I knew how deeply George felt about certain things in life and what he was trying to achieve and that letter from a very early age was just a seed of what he was thinking.”

She continued: “That at the very pinnacle of the young, early career of The Beatles, there was something telling him that this was not going to fulfil him. I think I was hoping that that’s what would happen [with the film] and that’s what Marty tuned into.”

When Olivia met Scorsese to discuss the prospect of making the film, she brought letters that Harrison had written to his mother during his time with The Beatles. Executive producer Margeret Bodde witnessed the meeting and said that the letters had really moved Scorsese and explained that that moment had really sealed it for him, he became determined to do George’s story justice.

Scorsese set about creating the film from Harrison’s video archives and interview snippets in 2008. For two years, he alternated between working on his film Shutter Island and the documentary. The documentary was finally released in October 2011 to rave critical reviews and won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming and Outstanding Nonfiction Special.

Watch the original trailer for George Harrison: Living in the Material World below.