I watched the Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison – it’s called Living in the Material World. I don’t get the fuss. It’s nearly four hours long. I sat and took it in one sitting. It felt like work.
So many people had told me that it was good but was at least 45 minutes too long. Isn’t that just any Martin Scorsese movie these days?
I love Scorsese – he’s made half a dozen films I think are incredible and another half-dozen that are more than decent. Anyone who tells you that he was never anything special just hasn’t been watching. Also, even if it was almost by accident, he made one of the great rock’n’roll films in The Last Waltz – even if it was because he just happened to be the guy there at the time with cameras and cocaine. Hey, it paid off.
But Scorsese, so good at framing music, using it as enhancing score for pivotal, evocative scenes in a range of cinema classics, is now just a name to attach to music documentaries.
There was The Blues series that he produced (he directed Feel Like Going Home from the series). Boring stuff. Well intentioned – in the sense that he was putting across some spirit of the blues and its history and making it accessible to a general audience, but boring all the same.
There was a roar of approval for his Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. There was some good footage included, tracing some of Bob’s more interesting influences (John Jacob Niles) but it drew heavily on the great snapshot of the time. You have to figure the rounds of applause were simply because it was about Bob and by Marty.
There was Shine a Light, a Rolling Stones concert-film which, like The Last Waltz before it, featured a light and breezy documentary-element. It might have had the look, it might have seemed like it was going to be cool but 15 minutes in the film wasn’t really necessary.
Now we have the documentary about The Quiet Beatle. Ten years have passed since George’s death – let’s celebrate him! That seemed to be the film’s silent pitch.
The first half of the movie retells the years spent in The Beatles – from there we get to George’s life away from The Beatles. Much has been made of the focus on George’s spirituality – his devotion to Eastern teachings, his fascination with meditation, the calm he sought through a quiet life or as quiet as it can be when you’ve been one of The Beatles; a life mostly removed from the spotlight after that decade of frenzy and phenomenon.
What a snore-fest this film is – coasting on the fact that Scorsese made it, riding also on a wave of goodwill: it’s a Beatles-related project (and hey, there are only two of them left now). And it’s a film about George, the quiet one. But he still had talent, he still wrote songs and – if you didn’t already know – he was a Monty Python fan, producing The Life of Brian.
We hear from Eric Clapton and Tom Petty and Paul McCartney and it’s all so safe. There’s a hint that George had “a dark side” – it’s served as some hushed revelation. There is Ringo Starr’s comment that there were two sides to George.
How perfunctory. How completely uninteresting and uninformative.
I love The Beatles – have done since I was four or five. My parents were (are) fans. The whole family loves this music – and for the longest time my favourite Beatle was George. I liked a lot of his solo material and felt he was undervalued in some ways; his one or two cuts per record were always strong songs. You could argue that the Lennon/McCartney partnership stifled his creativity – or encouraged it, urged it on, gave him the ultimate yardstick. To measure up and see a song or two of his on an album that featured a dozen gems from Paul and John meant he was doing well.
Harrison’s solo work is strong – in places. It was also patchy at times, as was the case for all of The Beatles when working solo.
But Scorsese’s documentary does little to serve/promote the music – instead it’s about the personality. Trouble is we don’t really see much of it. And that’s because there wasn’t ever a lot on show from George. There was wit, definitely. There was the darkness – the dark side and he was known as The Dark Horse – there was moodiness and stubbornness but there wasn’t a lot of personality, not personable personality. There was that act of saintliness that was The Concert for Bangladesh and there was a devotion to the musical side of the Eastern philosophies he enjoyed exploring. He certainly did his bit to encourage music from around the world rather than be a self-serving pop star. And there was a commitment to peace and love and happiness. But this is all known about George. This doesn’t require nearly four hours of meandering footage.
Scorsese manages to get away with readings of old letters and journals – a range of black and white photographs and some home-video footage pinned underneath. We’re supposed to feel grateful for witnessing footage that’s been on the cutting room floor every other time or should have remained in the private archive.
Perhaps I’m the wrong audience for this – I’ve seen a bunch of Beatles documentaries already, read plenty of books, spent so much time with the music and here I mean books about Harrison’s life in The Beatles and away from it, Harrison’s solo music and film projects too – not just life with/in The Beatles.
But that should make me part of the right audience. In this case it just felt like a waste – a waste of time, a wasted subject.
A shame though; I wanted to like this. I was excited about watching it. Instead, I felt like I was tunnelling through a pile of papers I’d already read several times – hoping to find the one revealing detail I’d missed every other time. It wasn’t there. But Martin Scorsese’s name was. And Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were on board to give it authenticity; to give it endorsement – a clear nod of approval. Must mean it’s good, right? They were his mates after all.
Olivia Harrison delivers a fine performance as professional widow; she comes across like an actress in her cloying interview sequences. It all feels so staged – but served up as if it was all candid. Embarrassingly so.