Monday, October 10, 2011

Scorsese's Missed Opportunity

George Harrison's eponymous 1979 album has always been a favorite of mine. It's soft, to be sure, but the tunes are all of high quality and show him in his best light: sweet, thoughtful, funny. George Harrison was also my go-to record when I wanted to fall asleep. It's a great listen AND a fine sleeping pill. That's just my personal example of the dichotomy that was George Harrison.

Martin Scorsese's much anticipated documentary on George, Living in the Material World, presented itself as the same mixed bag that was the ex-Beatle. It was sloppy and acute, focused and chaotic, touching and superficial. All like the man himself. Scorsese, or his underlings, couldn't quite grasp the man they chose to exalt. In the early segments of Part 1, the film focused on John Lennon, who is hands down more funny and clever than his younger band mate. Still, that's not why we were all watching. And to have both of George's brothers wasted in a one-off snippet that told the story of John spilling beer on a wedding guest, well that was unforgivable. What a wasted resource.

Why tell the Beatles story at all? Scorsese goes on the assumption that most viewers know the details anyway, otherwise why mention Stu's death, without noting who he was, how he may have died (or did die) and why his demise was so devastating to John? True, Dhani Harrison reading his father's letters was a solid device to show how Hari was, even at the beginning, jaded by the mania. It's unfair to judge the movie on what I think it should have been, instead of what it was, but telling the tale from the breakup onward, with flashbacks to the few pertinent Beatley moments, would have made a more effective and sharply honed narrative of George's quest for spiritual growth in a perverted world.

Part 2, the 1970 and onward period, was better, though still scattered. It bounced from All Things Must Pass, to the ill-fated Dark Horse tour of 1974, to George's creation of Handmade Films, his obsession with racing, the Traveling Wilburys and, ultimately, the outrageous attack in his home and death. The clips from what seemed to be a film made during the tour, which found George with poor voice, bad judgment in song selection (changing lyrics to Beatle songs, putting Ravi Shankar on twice), and happily, for critics, the target of venom after his "do no wrong" run from his debut album, to Concert for Bangladesh and the album which gave Scorsese's film its name, were eye-opening. George sounded horrible at first, though in fine voice a bit later on. The behind the scenes moments with a wise-cracking, throat-gargling George made we wish for a revisit to this period. not a revision, per se, because I've heard the bootlegs and the music is pretty weak, but a deep look at an interesting moment in rock history. Drummer Jim Keltner's take, that George, though struggling, was "loved" by the crowd, was an insightful look from a participant.

But even Keltner's anecdote about George putting a plug for the Jim Keltner fan club on the back cover of Living in the Material World, was missing a key fact. It wasn't a funny poke at Keltner; it was a nasty rebuke of Paul McCartney, who had a tag for a Wings Fan Club in the same spot on Red Rose Speedway. Scorsese's film had room for George as curmudgeonly, but not for George as vicious and nasty, which he could very well be.

There are powerful moments sprinkled throughout. 1976 George watching a 1964 clip of The Fabs singing "This Boy" was worth the price of admission. Tom Petty's eyes-welling account of George's call to tell of the death of Roy Orbison was touching. Eric Clapton provided thoughtful commentary throughout. And when was the last time anyone saw real emotion out of Ringo? With all his "peace and love" superficiality, Ringo has made himself a self-parodying joke, but when he tells of his last visit with George, and begins to cry, well, it was beautiful. McCartney was, as always, a tad inscrutable. His tales of his youth with George, as two young mates, came across as genuine, but at other times, when he explains his late-period dictatorial ways, it was simply another edition of the last decade's "Paul Revisionary Tour." Macca is lucky to be the last one standing who can shape the tale of The Beatles. Ringo was never in the trenches in the same way as the other three.

Olivia Harrison provided depth, the sole person who was willing to delve into her husband's foibles, however briefly. And her account of the knife wielding madman who broke into Friar Park is harrowing. A short take of George mixing a Ringo song at his home studio is made touching by a lovely hug that Dhani gives his dad. There are more wonderful bits scattered over the 3 1/2 hours but, as a friend said "vignettes do not make up a narrative."

So, what are we left with at the end? A jumbled view of an interesting man, a film that felt both too long and too short, and the empty feeling of an underwhelming effort. The hardcover companion book does a much better job of fleshing out the man. Did I like it? I have a hard time criticizing The Beatles and their projects, though I do know when the product is weak. Living in the Material World is mediocre at best, but any time I can spend with George Harrison is time well spent. I'm hoping for really good bonus features when the DVD comes out.