We're living in the age of the schlockumentary. Ideally, a documentary should have an arm's-length distance between subject and chronicler. And one hopes that the director is there in service of the viewer, not the subject. In the arts world, that ideal is getting harder and harder to find. A vast cottage industry has sprung up around the making-of documentaries for movies and even CDs. They sport a professional patina and are often enjoyable to watch. But they aren't real documentaries: There's never anything in them that any of the interested parties (stars, director, the producers, the studio) don't want in them—and in the end, they're being used to sell product.
It's worse when you get into the real world. Consider Pearl Jam Twenty, the new documentary on Pearl Jam, by director Cameron Crowe. Back in the 1990s, Crowe, a friend of the band's, wrote the Rolling Stone cover story on the group, one of the only substantive interviews Vedder and Co. gave during their early stardom. Here we are almost two decades later, and Pearl Jam has the same friend do a "documentary" on them. Pearl Jam Twenty is a fun movie with lots of great early footage, but Pearl Jam's corporation is listed as a producer, so you know there's not going to be anything in it that doesn't jibe with the band's image of itself.
Our leading schlockumentarian is Martin Scorsese. Now, Scorsese is known for his piercing use of rock in his films; beyond that, he was one of the editors for Woodstock and directed The Last Waltz, which is still the gold standard for rock docs. But even in The Last Waltz you can see him work hard to burnish his buddy Robbie Robertson's image. (Other members of the Band have said, for example, that Robertson's theatrical backup singing was delivered to a dead mic.) No Direction Home, Scorsese's celebrated four-hour documentary on Bob Dylan, was engrossing, but it was also based on interviews that the Dylan camp had already made and gave the director to build a film around. The film unaccountably received a Peabody for a practice that would be unacceptable in most journalistic outlets. When films or film screener discs are given out to journalists, the industry often includes things called electronic press kits, or EPKs, which feature pre-filmed canned interviews with the stars. No Direction Home is basically a high-end EPK.
Then Scorsese made Shine a Light, a filmed concert movie about a pair of Rolling Stones shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City in 2006. The beginning of the film sees Scorsese seemingly in a frenzy about getting the setlist for the show, which is delivered to him at the last second. Scorsese knew that the Stones had started most of their last 60 or 70 concerts with "Start Me Up," and that men the Stones' age rarely do anything radically new. Scorsese later admitted he'd had the setlist hours before the show, but that didn't stop him from ginning up a fake drama that allowed him to insert himself into the film.
And now we have 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.
There are two ways to look at George Harrison. The nicer one is that he was a top-line and underappreciated guitarist, good enough to have spent many years as a close friend and occasional collaborator of Eric Clapton's; that he wrote at least two classic songs ("Something," and "Here Comes the Sun," two more than most songwriters write) and another half-dozen quite good ones; that he was one of the original rock humanitarians; and that, all in all, given a career he could never have dreamed of, he made his way through it with a great deal of dignity. Like John Lennon, he suffered a grievous assault for no other reason but that he was famous (a knife attack on the eve of the millennium, which nearly killed him); and he died too young, of lung cancer, in 2001, not yet 60.
The other and arguably more realistic appraisal might be that George Harrison's contributions as a guitarist were pretty much limited to a few Beatles riffs and the fine and quite recognizable slide sound he developed in his solo years. That producing two great songs after 10 intimate years with two of the top songwriters of the 20th century isn't awfully surprising, and that even if you throw in the other half-dozen, the total isn't much for a recording career that spanned almost 40 years; that most of his Beatles songs are inferior; that his voice was weak; that he was more than a bit of a mope; that he thoroughly embarrassed himself on his only American tour; and that the greater share of his solo work was poor, and that some of it was dreadful.
You can imagine which side of this Scorsese takes. For Beatles fans, there's a lot to see in the documentary. The first half, which airs Wednesday evening and takes us up to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," begins with a tour-de-force of a collage, set to Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," that captures some of the feelings of loss his death left among his friends and then efficiently limns the postwar era of Harrison's (and the other band members’) childhood. (He didn't grow up with indoor plumbing.) There's also a great deal of priceless footage of the group's early years, even more than in the still enjoyable Anthology series of Beatles documentaries. (Among other things, Scorsese handles the switch from the kids' black-and-white world to a color one with some lancing cuts and song cues.) Scorsese was also given access to some of Harrison's letters to his parents, which are read by Harrison's son Dhani.
Scorsese gets Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr on-screen—they were the Beatles' closest friends during their time playing in the red-light district of Hamburg. There are memorable and haunting images of the doomed Stu Sutcliffe, the group's original bassist and Kirchherr's boyfriend. Living in the Material World doesn't have any voice-over narration, so there's a recurring floating feeling as you watch. Here, we hear about the Beatles' reaction to Sutcliffe's death but not about how or why he died. (It was a brain aneurysm at the age of 21, possibly stemming from a street fight the group had gotten into.)