As three-hour-plus Martin Scorsese documentaries about 1960s musical legends go, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” showing in two parts on HBO on Wednesday and Thursday, is not the best. That would be “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” shown on PBS in 2005. (“Shine a Light,” about the Rolling Stones, was largely a concert film and only two hours long.)
Comparing the two films (as unfair as it might be to Mr. Scorsese) is a useful way to discuss the experience of seeing “Living in the Material World,” an absorbing and beautifully made film in its own right, whose 208 minutes mostly fly by.
The Dylan documentary had the advantage of a living and surprisingly garrulous subject whose interview segments gave the film a through line and a strange, bubbling energy. “Material World” has extensive footage of Mr. Harrison talking before his death in 2001, but the film inevitably seems more historical, more like a standard great-man biography. (Mr. Harrison’s widow, Olivia, initiated the project and is a producer of the film.)
Just as important is the congruence of Mr. Scorsese and his current subject: two questing minds, raised in Roman Catholic families, who were drawn to Asian philosophies and art and driven to stump for them in the West; two reserved but powerfully controlling and perfectionist artists; two men conscious of their roles as standards keepers and cultural influencers.
You can speculate that this identification fuels the deep emotional currents that run through “Material World,” especially in its more somber second half. But I suspect it’s also responsible for the fact that the film feels less exploratory than “No Direction Home,” less of an adventure and more of a masterly lecture about a well-understood subject.
Mr. Scorsese and his editor, David Tedeschi, have confronted the primary challenge of a Harrison biography — how to deal with the Beatles — by making what amounts to two films. The first, on Wednesday night, is the Beatles’ story, and it’s a snappy, swirling rock ’n’ roll fable that slows and saddens as it moves from teenage girls to drugs to maharishis to break-up, building toward the incantatory sound of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The second is Harrison as the post-Beatles Renaissance man, pioneering the high-profile charity concert, advancing the cause of world music and helping to produce more than a few of the best British films of the 1980s. This section is more diffuse, with material on Harrison the family man, or the founding of the Traveling Wilburys, that may not be of great interest to every viewer.
Mr. Scorsese, Mr. Tedeschi and a small army of researchers spent five years assembling interviews, music, film clips, photos and memorabilia. Without a narrator or explanatory titles or transitions, they tell a roughly chronological story in a nonlinear fashion. That’s another way of saying that Mr. Tedeschi has edited the film so artfully and meticulously, and with such a sensitive eye and ear, that it doesn’t feel as if you were watching a talking-heads-and-film-clips documentary, even though you are.
Within “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” is an argument for Harrison’s essential role in the culture (one that didn’t need to be made for Mr. Dylan) and for the continuing relevance of his explorations of Eastern thought. Your interest in, and patience for, this argument will affect your reaction, though a lack of sympathy shouldn’t prevent anyone from thoroughly enjoying and being moved by the film. In any case, the post-Beatles Harrison is a complex figure, his cosmic and anti-materialist attitudes combining with a passionate love for the life of an English country squire.
A number of fascinating interview subjects scroll past, including the producer George Martin and a drolly self-absorbed Eric Clapton. But the best are the two surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and particularly the effervescent, impossibly charming Paul McCartney. Even after all these years — and even in Harrison’s own film — Mr. McCartney still steals the show, every chance he gets.