Like many boomers, I am a Beatles fan. I can sing every song on Beatles Rock Band, and grew up loving each Beatle in his own way: Paul’s narcissistic sweet tenor, John’s growly, witty edge, Ringo’s underappreciated backbeat and soulful George. He was the gifted musician, the lead guitarist: he made the songs work. And his songs, in my view, stand the test of time along with the best of the Lennon/McCartney songbook, from Harrison’s only chart-topper, Something in the Way She Moves to While My Guitar Gently Weeps, featuring rare guest soloist Eric Clapton. While Harrison had fewer compositions, he put more time into them; they pop.
So I couldn’t have been more excited about seeing Martin Scorsese tackle the hidden, recessive Beatle in his George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which airs in two parts Wednesday and Thursday on HBO. That’s partly because I was so impressed by Scorsese’s No Direction Home, a brilliant portrait of Bob Dylan, which showed me a man and artist who I thought I knew but didn’t (the Stones’ Shine a Light was more of a concert doc). Perhaps because Dylan was a chameleon-like frontman performer who wrote and sang and changed personas like Madonna, he made a more compelling subject. Harrison was all about being the man behind the dominating John and Paul. Also, given that his wife Olivia was a necessary collaborator on this, it feels more friendly, less inquisitive. It also digs into the biographical material and big names available on video and doesn’t focus on the making of the music itself. That was a major let-down. Finally, it has no strong take or POV.
A sampling of more positive reviews is below.
“Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World on HBO, an exhausting but not exhaustive look at the life of the Quiet Beatle. It is a signal work in the age of the schlockumentary. The film, all three-and-a-half-hours-plus of it, is, as you’d expect from Scorsese, a handsome presentation. It’s stately, respectful, at times touching, and bears the marks of his typically exhaustive research. But in the end, the documentary contains nothing that the subject, were he still alive, would have found objectionable.”
“It’s a problematic, at times off-putting, but ultimately fascinating work, moving through George’s life with its own mysterious internal logic,..The film’s choices of what to emphasize, minimize and ignore will surely frustrate some Beatles fans.”
“Scorsese has accomplished the best documentary that is probably possible,..This is a more objective, less personal documentary than Scorsese usually makes,..Even now, there is something a little hidden and private about him. I suspect if we want to sense his presense, we should visit his gardens.”
“More than mere rock-doc hagiography, Material World reveals how a tortured millionaire struggled to tame his soul, understand life and ready himself for death.”