George Harrison: Living in the Material World
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
a film by Martin Scorcese (2011)
9 p.m., October 5 and 6, HBO Documentaries
George Harrison was my fave Beatle, not so much for his music (which was good but not as good as Lennon and McCartney's) as for his personality. John was the smart-ass intellectual, Paul was the cute cuddly one always playing to the cameras and the girls, and Ringo was the loveable goofball naif with the Zippy-like quips ("I like grapes!"). But George the "Quiet Beatle" was just cool; always effortlessly cool. So of course I watched part 1 of Scorcese's much anticipated 2-part, 3 1/2-hour doc GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD last night on HBO. But here's the thing: I was kinda underwhelmed. It was not great, it was not awful - it was just kind of ordinary. I'm still not convinced that great filmmaker Scorcese is necessarily a great documentary maker (though I loved his Bob Dylan doc NO DIRECTION HOME and LAST WALTZ - although the latter is more a one-off music performance than full-fledged doc). Especially after seeing Ken Burns's recent PROHIBITION (admittedly a hard act to follow), Scorcese's most recent attempt at the genre looks amateurish, with some questionable (bordering on haphazard) editing choices and notable omissions.
The opening in particular is one of the lamest I've ever seen and there seems to be no defining narrative arc. Talking heads pop in and out without any seeming logic or order to their appearance (son Dhanni Harrison makes a cameo, but where's Olivia Harrison?), and the music is chopped up - you hear a snippet of a George song, then it cuts out abruptly and awkwardly to give way to a talking head instead of being smoothly lowered and having the interviewee talk over it; similarly, Scorcese uses a lot of video in which he drops the audio entirely to have a narrator read George's letters, which really doesn't work. Ken Burns is the master of this when using still photographs (in fact, it's called "the Ken Burns Effect"), but the herky-jerky stop-start technique employed here comes off as amateurish, like public access TV.
And as for the narrative arc, Paul McCartney is seen almost instantly offering commentary, but it's a full 30 or 40 minutes before Ringo joins the discussion. Patti Boyd is thrown in randonly around this time, too. George met Patti when she was an extra in A Hard Day's Night, seemingly a no-brainer point to mention and an obvious clip to show in a documentary purpotedly about Harrison. Yet, Scorcese never mentions it. Other sins of omission follow. I mean, how can you not show the Hard Day's Night clip of George talking about "grotty" fashion and teen idol "Susan" while at the advertising agency.
Watch George's funny scene in "A Hard Day's Night."
"Oh, by all means, I'd be quite prepared for that eventuality."
Maybe Scorcese gleans over these details because of the surfeit of Beatles docs that have come before, like the excellent 3/4 Beatles-approved Anthology. Or, maybe it's because Yoko Ono (who famously didn't get along with George early on - she royally pissed off George after the the infamous "Biscuit Incident" at Abbey Road Studios when she ate all the cookies sitting atop George's guitar amp!) still wields control over much of the Beatles archives, but there are some glaring holes in this narrative. Maybe not as many "holes in Blackburn, Lancashire," but quite a few.
Take George's spiritual awakening. It happened during the filming of Help! (1966) when George took an interest in the Indian musicians playing in the film. This lead to his interest in Ravi Shankar and the sitar; suddenly, a door opened into a whole new culture and way of life. Not mentioned at all! The whole Majarishi Mahesh Yogi trip came later in 1967. Scorcese does touch on that, but his segue into "Sexy Sadie" and meditation and the Beatles' trip to India is the whole "Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy that occured after Maureen Cleave's infamous interview with John Lennon about religion. That's a legitimate segue, but Scorcese misses a prime opportunity to reference one of George's priceless one-liners, when the terrified Beatles sat inside their plane at Memphis airport looking out at a backdrop of angry pro-Christian protesters; after a clearly terrified John asked what they should do, George responded matter-of-factly, "Why don't we send John out first? He's the one they want!"
George had many classic quips (see beatlesquotes.com for a selective sampling) and unlike John's, often calculated to shock, I think they were almost always honest, spontaneous, and off the cuff. From the first U.S. invasion when a reporter asked him what he called his haircut ("Arthur" - which may or may not have inspired the great free magazine Arthur)...
Q: What do you call that haircut? A: Arthur.
...to his "As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead," George was a master of the telling deadpan barb. (See "George Harrison: The Provocateur Beatle?" for more on George's barbed witticisms.)
More classic George Harrison quips:
"I've been the same all along. I talk when I feel like it and I shut up when I don't feel like talking."
Question: "Hi, you're not married?"
George Harrison: "No, I'm George."
"The biggest break in my career was getting into the Beatles in 1962. The second biggest break since then is getting out of them."
"The Beatles exist apart from my Self. I am not really Beatle George. Beatle George is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me."
Anyway, there is one thing I have learned and that is not to dress uncomfortably, in styles which hurt: winklepicker shoes that cripple your feet and tight pants that squash your balls. Indian clothes are better."
So far, I have to agree with David Hinckley who, in his New York Daily News review, observed:
"...in the end, we learn little beyond the standard biography that has circulated for years: that George sometimes felt like a junior Beatle, that he involved himself deeply in spiritual pursuits, that he was happiest in his later years when he disappeared into his country estate and tended his gardens while mulling the eternal.
There's clearly a lot of truth to that general outline, and perhaps at this point there are no significant new dimensions or perspectives anyone could add."
Maybe so. And as George Harrison once famously said of himself, "I'm not about to jump up and down shouting, 'Hey folks, look at me! I'm cool and groovy!' That's not what George Harrison is all about."
Similarly, Scorcese's doc is neither cool nor groovy. That's not what it's about, either. Maybe it will pick up the pieces when Part 2 airs tonight. I certainly hope so. If not, check out the excellent LA Times feature "George Harrison: A Video Miscellany," which has some great Harrison video clips highlighting his sense of humor. As the piece points out, all the Beatles were funny, but it was George who mortgaged his home to produce Monty Python's Life of Brian and who was the one with "the strongest connection to and affection for comedy."
OK, off to watch tonight's finale. I leave you with George's last television appearance, a 1997 VH1 performance of "All Things Must Pass."
Selected George Harrison Video Clips:
Watch George sing "I Need You" from Help!
Watch George as Pirate Bob on "Rutland Weekend Television."
Watch George as the interviewer in The Rutles.
Watch George and Paul Simon play "Here Comes the Sun" (SNL 1976).
Watch "All Those Years Ago."
Watch "When We Was Fab."
Watch the 3/4 Beatles play "Ain't She Sweet" (1994) - with George on ukulele!
Watch George on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1968).
Watch "Crackerjack Palace."