Oct 6, 2011

NYFF 2011: George Harrison: Living in a Material World

This four-hour documentary by Martin Scorsese on George Harrison could have been awesome at half its running time. The first part, which chronicles Harrison's musical career beginning with The Beatles, is exciting and wonderful. Scorsese and his great editor David Tedeschi eschew the chronological route for a less straightforward organization of the generous amount of material they have. It's loosely organized by themes: post war Britain, Harrison's loving family, the mass hysteria the Beatles created, the ascendancy of drugs and psychic experimentation, George's dynamics within the band, his spiritual search. For those of us who love The Beatles, it is a moving trip down memory lane. It starts with great flair, with fun, creative cuts both of the images and the sound. A lot of the footage seems fresh and not the recycled Ed Sullivan or Shea Stadium stuff that everyone has seen to death. There are also plenty of reminiscing talking heads, including Harrison himself (from the many imterviews he gave through the years), and his many and sundry friends, including Paul and Ringo, both charming, Eric Clapton, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, and other notables, most ghoulishly Phil Spector, who produced some of Harrison's solo work. The first part reminds us how huge and trailblazing The Beatles and how they rode the wave of their own age with agility and creative fearlessness. They were true artists; not content with delivering the same sweet pop formula that changed pop music forever, they delved deeper, experimenting and creating more sophisticated masterpieces with every album. It is also a window to their particular relationship, cemented, as Harrison comments, by so many times they had to hang out together because they simply could not enjoy five minutes out in the sun without creating pandemonium. They were bigger than God, made more money than God, and all that fame and fortune was a two-edged sword, that seems to have hit Harrison particularly hard.
As enigmatic and mercurial as those who knew George claim he was, he is not as flamboyant and extroverted a subject as John Lennon. The arc of his life, was rich but mostly inward-looking, and as spectacular as it was for him, is not as interesting for the audience.
The problem lies in the fact that the second part of the movie devotes an inordinate amount of time to Harrison's spiritual search. It gets really repetitive. As admirable and genuine as his spirituality may have been, in terms of a documentary subject it is as exciting as watching paint dry. Spirituality is tough to convey, sealed as it is inside people's heads, and it's like what it's said of some kinds of humor: for you to get it, you had to be there. We see endless repetitive footage of Harrison with Ravi Shankar in India and Hare Krishnas and tunics but one keeps hitting one's nose against the window of George's soul and we are not that much more enlightened by the end of the movie. To his credit, George Harrison remains an enigma.
Although Harrison composed a handful of nifty songs for The Beatles, his biggest hit was My Sweet Lord, a saccharine song I never liked. The movie omits the fact, a pretty big one, considering, that Harrison was sued and lost for unwittingly plagiarizing a melody for this monster hit. During his solo career he had a couple of good songs, just as Lennon had at most two handfuls of important hits, but nothing at the level of Don't Bother Me, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps or Here Comes the Sun, all of which are unique and indisputable masterpieces.
I appreciate Scorsese's intention to make this film more intimate and personal than didactic, but many questions are left unanswered that by the end accrue into a jumbled parade of milestones rather than a complex look into this artist's character. The Concert for Bangladesh, for instance, which was the first rock benefit concert ever, gets short shrift because no one bothers to explain what was happening in Bangladesh that made Harrison stand up for it. That Harrison was a trailblazer becomes clear: he helped introduce yoga and meditation to the Western world almost singlehandedly, at a time when the popular reaction to these pursuits was pretty uncomprehending and hostile. He created the concept of the benefit concert, he was a producer of quirky independent films through his production company HandMade Films. But as in the documentary about John Lennon, also produced in cooperation with the artist's widow (in this case, Olivia Harrison), even though it skims through certain dark sides of George such as his philandering, or his on and off drug use, there is too much reverence going on. Olivia is a charismatic woman with great presence and she delivers the best one liner in the movie, but I wonder if her guiding hand did not steer Scorsese too much into the spiritual. And as in last year's doc about John Lennon, although access to the spouse means access to fascinating material, both works could use less interested parties to tell the story.
It took five years to make the film and by the end it feels like a slog, like Scorsese lost the wind in his sails.

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