George Harrison: Living in the Material World (USA, 2011)

george_harrison_living_in_the_material_world_xlgDirected by: Martin Scorsese. I’ve seen enough of these music docs to know what I like, and I think I figured it out: a willingness to deflate and poke holes in the subject’s iconic image, in the middle of building and solidifying that iconic image. Those images of skinny, long-haired, tired, worn-out, post-Patti Boyd, post-All Thing Must Pass, hoarse-voiced George, tired George, perhaps a little bitter George, perhaps a bit drugged and drunk George, is to me shockingly incompatible with the accepted dominant picture we usually have of the serene quiet Beatle. Beyond this bit of ideology-prodding, I’m not sure if there’s much substance of interest in this movie beyond hero worship. Normally I hate such hero worship, but that’s basically what a music doc amounts to—after all, how often does someone devote so much time and effort to making a film about someone they don’t have at least a fervent interest in (if not an extreme devotion to)? I would like to see some film material, documentary or otherwise, about a public figure of cultural importance that takes a more distanced, more critical view, rather than defaulting to a generally flattering portrayal. This film, like all biopics and bio docs, is based on the assumption that the audience is fundamentally interested in George Harrison and the Beatles, that they make the unquestioning assumption that the Beatles were the most important pop band in history and that George Harrison was the most interesting, most talented, most underrated, and most “deep” member of that band. What the film doesn’t do, however, is strangle the life out of that story—by which, I mean, Scorsese refrains from filling in more than an outline of a typical “great man” story arc, allowing the vagaries and messiness and pointlessness of any man’s life to sort of sit there undefined for any viewer who wishes to leave it undefined. I think I am such a viewer, and I enjoyed that restraint on Scorsese’s part. And, of course, I happen to agree that the Beatles were one of the most important musical elements in modern history and that George Harrison was himself a really interesting individual with some great material to his credit. If you also fit that description, by all means, check out this movie. If not, then this movie might be even more interesting to you, as your outsider perspective will give you a glimpse of a strange man driven by new-age religious fanaticism filtered through an appreciation for 60’s hippie pacifism and (as wonderfully pointed out by Terry Gilliam) a straightforwardly cold, greedy monetary conservatism—“this, from the man who wrote ‘Taxman.'” Scorsese is a pro filmmaker, but there certainly are moments when his music choices feels jarring—but maybe it just feels that way because both myself and Scorsese have pretty particular views on how music ought to be used in a music documentary. Fair enough.

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