Nobody can question Martin Scorsese’s body of work, but there is growing evidence that his documentary work-specifically the films devoted to his generation’s pipers-is growing increasingly celebratory and decreasingly informative.
The word “forgettable” did not apply to a Scorsese film, but that is a good adjective for his last effort, Shine A Light, a late career concert documentary on The Rolling Stones. Shine A Light is not a very good indicator of how good the Stones were as a live unit, and it does not show them as anything but aging dinosaurs whose better days were well behind them.
He returns with Living In The Material World, nearly four hours of archival material pieced together to give us insight on this complex artist. The effort is deserved, as Harrison has probably been the most private of the members of The Beatles, with even his autobiography I Me Mine reading as a cherry-picked collection of memories that provide a basic overview of his life while not seeming overly concerned with digging too deep into touchy subjects.
Living In The Material World is no exception. Whether it is Scorsese’s own strategy or producer/spouse Olivia Harrison’s instructions to avoid controversial topics, the movie serves as a basic introduction to George while passing over his musical output with a vague eye.
You hear very little on the conflict between George and the rest of the Beatles, other than the common knowledge that his allotment of one song an album was beginning to be questioned.
Conversely, so little time is spent on his solo work the fact that after Harrison’s only post-Beatle masterpiece All Things Must Pass that there is little evidence to suggest that he had much to offer the music market after that record anyway.
Could it be that the dominance of Lennon/McCartney creativity during the Beatles prompted Harrison to work that much harder at his own craft and without it, he’d gotten lazy?
While I don’t expect a documentary to completely rail on the subject-particularly when the family is participating in its development-I do expect that it should be a fair representation of the subject.
Let’s be honest: I’m hard pressed to come up with an album’s worth of good George Harrison songs after All Things Must Pass and, to that point, even Scorsese agrees based on the song material he includes on this documentary. There is very little post-All Things Must Pass music underneath the endless praising and personal antidotes.
Even during the film’s first half, so much time is spent on explaining Stu Sutcliff’s role in the Beatle’s early development that you wonder, “Who is this documentary about?”
Added to this, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on John Lennon that you begin to wonder if Lennon’s own criticism of I Me Mine right before his murder made an impact on George’s life, to the point where the film goes out of its way on making sure John gets the proper credit.
And all of this makes you wonder if we really need four hours to tell the story of George Harrison.
Is, perhaps, the reason we knew so little about “the quiet Beatle” is because his first role was his finest? His comfort level and talents were best matched as the silent counter-balance to John and Paul and, without them, he began to notice the limitations of his own talents?
We’ll never know, particularly if Living In The Material World claims to be the definitive overview of George Harrison.
There’s a sticky feeling to it too, as we learn why Harrison felt such a connection to the Hindu religion, but we get little insight to the suggestion that Harrison was far from being the idealistic beacon that the film likes to hint at.
His friendship with Eric Clapton is given ample airtime, but very little is spent on the dynamic of Clapton’s approach to George’s first wife, Pattie, other than to describe the infidelity as nothing more than an off-shoot of the “freedom” within swinging London.
There is a bit of candid information at the end of Living In The Material World, when the severities of Harrison’s wounds resulting from the attack made on his life when an intruder stabbed him on New Year’s Eve, 1999.
Apparently, George was close to death after the attack and he is extremely lucky that his wife Olivia was there to beat the shit out of the assailant with a nearby fireplace poker.
All of this came after Harrison was undergoing cancer treatment, and there is a bit of suggestion that the attack also contributed to George’s health deteriorating, just before another cancerous growth was discovered.
The growth led to the Harrison camp getting involved with Dr Gil Lederman and his controversial cancer treatments in Staten Island. While there, Lederman managed to break the traditional doctor/patient role when the “good doctor” took Harrison’s frail hand to initiate a barely conscious autograph.
I use this story from the last days of Harrison’s life as an example. This may not have been the most glowing story of George’s life, but it was part of it and it serves as a perfect example of why Harrison shied away from the limelight that his career created. Even while he was dying, Harrison was forced to deal with fame when his primary focus should have been with his health.
It was a well-known story, but Scorsese leaves it for us to discover. And it makes us consider “How many other stories did Martin Scorsese leave out for the sake of making nice with the Harrison estate or for the sake of making his subject matter more like a deity?”