Thursday, September 6, 2012
The Quiet Beatle in full?
Almost a year after its release, I finally watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese's acclaimed documentary about the "Quiet Beatle." Based on the length of the film (208 minutes) and several reviews I had read, my main expectation going in was that Scorsese would provide a thorough, exhaustive treatment of George's life. I recall one reviewer opining that GH: LITMW would stand as the final word on the perpetual odd-man-out of The Beatles' powerhouse triumvirate. It was strange, then, that upon finishing the doc, my first thoughts were all about how much it gave short shrift to or left out altogether. For instance, in Scorsese's hands, George's career as a solo musician is boiled down to All Things Must Pass, the Concert for Bangladesh and the Traveling Wilburys. These are the highlights, yes, but focusing on them to the exclusion of his many other solo releases leads to a dramatically incomplete picture of George as a recording artist. In other spots, GH: LITMW approaches whitewash territory (even if it doesn't quite get to that level). Scorsese couldn't possibly sidestep the messy love triangle that developed between George, his then-wife Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton - and he doesn't - but he paints George as an almost passive player in the drama, which he wasn't. Elsewhere, George's widely panned 1974 U.S. tour comes up, as do the unkind reviews, but the section ends with someone swooping in to its defense. Though there are exceptions (like when Olivia Harrison broaches, with an obviously heavy heart, George's infidelity), the general tenor of the film seems to be: allude to the negatives when unavoidable and emphasize the positives as much as possible, because something close to the uncensored version might be too dicey. If, on the other hand, there simply wasn't enough space to present George's story in more complicated detail (which is being charitable), Scorsese didn't help himself out by opting against a conventional structure for the film. His lightly impressionistic aesthetic, which eschews voice-over narration, the use of dates and strict chronology, is sloppy, tedious and inefficient. The narrative often feels like it's merely drifting along, sometimes covering the same ground twice and at other times not moving at all. A general vagueness prevails. I think the story would've benefited greatly from a more formal technique. Though it has a fair amount to offer (i.e., various interviews, George's letters, rare footage, etc.), I have to count George Harrison: Living in the Material World as a missed opportunity. With so much at his disposal, Scorsese should've aimed higher.