LOS ANGELES — When Martin Scorsese and Olivia Harrison first sat down about five years ago to strategize about a documentary on the life of George Harrison, both quickly zeroed in on a letter the young Beatle wrote to his family at the height of Beatlemania.
"It was a letter George had written when he was not more than 22," Harrison said of the man to whom she was married for 23 years before his death a decade ago. "It was in 1965, and the Beatles would have been really cresting at that point. He was writing home and told his family, 'I know that this isn't it. I knew I was going to be famous, but now I know I can reach the real top of what man can achieve, which is self-realization.' He knew then that (material reward) wasn't it."
That letter figures into a pivotal moment in Scorsese's film, "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," which premiered on HBO over two nights Wednesday and Thursday to accommodate its 3 1/2-hour length, and HBO will re-air the shows over the coming days.
In the scene, George says how lucky the Beatles were to acquire so many of the material goods early on that most people spend their entire lives yearning for, because they learned relatively young how hollow such things ultimately ring.
Olivia Harrison gave Scorsese and his team virtual carte blanche access to home movies, family photos, audio recordings and other items from her husband's estate for use in the film, which paints a richly detailed and unvarnished picture of the man initially pigeonholed as "the quiet Beatle."
A more accurate sobriquet might have been "the spiritual Beatle" to reflect the inward quest that seemed to capture Harrison early in a life in which he once famously said that his biggest break had been getting into the Beatles; his second biggest, getting out.
In talking about the film, Olivia Harrison makes no bones about how emotional it's been for her to see the many aspects of her husband's life translated to the screen.
"I thought I had this clear vision of what this story would look like on screen, but it's nothing like how I imagined it would be," she said, "even though it's accurate and honest and truthful."
Even about uncomfortable topics such as Harrison's 1974 solo tour that was savaged by many critics as well as its references to affairs he had after he married the former Olivia Arias, whom he met in 1974 when she was working in the L.A. offices of his Dark Horse Records label.
"Nobody asked me to bring up that subject," she said, "it just came up. It was really about being with someone who's in that position. I'm certainly not the only one who's been with somebody who's charismatic. It's a big diversion."
It's also just a tiny part of the overall story, which begins with Harrison as a fairly happy child, born into a large Liverpool family amid World War II. It follows his ride to the pinnacle of pop culture as a member of the most popular and creatively influential band in the world, his exit when the group disbanded in 1970 and on through his subsequent musical, cinematic, spiritual and philanthropic endeavors, which Scorsese covers, rough edges and all.
"Left to me, (the documentary) would have had no edges," Olivia Harrison said.
"I really had to let go of that. Marty crafted it that way, and (their son) Dhani was also very helpful. He told me, 'You have to have the good and the bad, the black and the white; you can't just have it all nice.'... It took a lot of getting used to. I had to see it several times before I could look at it and not wince. It is brutally honest."
Harrison died of cancer on Nov. 29, 2001, at age 58.