Why did Martin Scorsese present the Quiet Beatle as the Boring Beatle?

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Oct. 4 2011 6:04 PM

The Boring Beatle

Martin Scorsese's new documentary neuters George Harrison.

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The second half, which is being shown Thursday night, deals with the breakup of the Beatles, similarly indistinctly; Harrison's increasing interest in Indian music, religiosity, and mysticism; events like the Concert for Bangladesh (still a sublime concert experience on DVD, incidentally); and, superficially, his solo career and activities in the last 30 years of his life. (Among other things, he stepped in to bail out the production of Monty Python's Life of Brian, and hung out with race-car drivers, like England's Jackie Stewart.)

Now, Harrison's a not-uninteresting figure and probably warrants a documentary. And again, Scorsese's army of researchers has rounded up some incredible footage, like the extended takes of a British TV show in which questioners try to get to the core of Harrison's religious beliefs.

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But Living in the Material World fails on several levels.

For the first, it's not really fair, I suppose, but Harrison's natural diffidence doesn't work for him in this context. Particularly in the first 45 minutes, dramatic events like formation of the Beatles and the death of Sutcliffe tend to overshadow the film's ostensible subject. It doesn't help that Scorsese keeps getting distracted by one of Harrison's bandmates in particular. (I can imagine someone who knew nothing of the Beatles watching the first part and saying, "I don't really get that George guy, but who was that John character? Someone should make a four-hour documentary about him.")

Second, the EPK origins of the thing are always on display. Consider Harrison's 1974 solo tour. Scorsese slides in the news that the shows got some bad reviews, but only, in trademarked schlockumentary fashion, in the context of someone leaping to Harrison's defense. In fact, the tour was a legendary debacle. For the shows, Harrison foisted on the audience not one but two sets of Ravi Shankar, harangued fans with his beliefs, and insisted on changing song lyrics to remind people of how religious he was. (He even did this with Beatles songs he didn't write. He sang Lennon's "In My Life" as "In my life/ I've loved god more." For some reason, such interpolations weren't popular.)

The show was so bad that the Rolling Stone feature on the fiasco ("Lumbering in the Material World") featured this analysis of the show in its fourth paragraph: "I hated it. … One, it's too long. Two, Ravi's got to be one set. And three, George has to shut up." That was from Harrison's publicist. The footage from the tour Scorsese shows here, which I'd never seen before, shows that Harrison's crimes were not just artistic but sartorial. He looks like Mork from Ork's twit British cousin.

Harrison, after some soundtrack work, released nearly a dozen solo albums after the breakup of the Beatles. Scorsese's interest in them stops at the second, All Things Must Pass. (Another of the documentary's coup interview subjects: ATMP producer Phil Spector, who it turns out sounds like Peter Falk. Unmentioned here is the fact that Harrison once recalled that it took Spector about 13 cherry brandies before he could get to work on the album.)

Besides "Isn't It a Pity," the title track is probably my favorite Harrison song; it has a great Spector production and features Harrison's most resonant vocals. But it's also true that the mystical grandeur of the song's title disappears when you pay attention to the lyrics: It's really a fairly cold "sorry I had to break up with you" song, and has a lot of typically careless writing in it, too.

In other words, once Harrison's way with a melody left him, early on in his solo career, he wasn't left with much. If you wield your remote fast enough you can do a freeze-frame on a fleeting glimpse of a Rolling Stone review of Harrison's Dark Horse solo album. (The headline is "Transcendental Mediocrity.") This is the only sign of the almost unrelieved decline in Harrison's songwriting and record-making talents after All Things Must Pass.

Maybe I'm being churlish, but I think a 200-plus-minute documentary about a songwriter should include something about the work he did in the last five-eighths of his adult life. Even the better songs from this period—"Crackerbox Palace," say, or "Faster"—suffer from an uneven production and Harrison's even more uneven voice. Am I the only person who thinks the charming "Crackerbox Palace" is decisively marred by Harrison's effete delivery of the "We've been expecting you-oo-oo" line? Also unmentioned here is the fact that the only things resembling hits in the last 25 years of Harrison's life were novelty numbers (a Beatles tribute song, "When We Was Fab," and a cover, "Got My Mind Set on You"). Harrison wasn't exactly David Crosby as a symbol of post-'60s rock-star artistic decline, but he was close.