This HBO miniseries by Scorsese, which adds to a musical portfolio including a Rolling Stones concert (Shine a Light) and a Bob Dylan biography ( No Direction Home) focuses on the other Beatle who isn’t around any more, and perhaps the must mysterious and different of the four as well as ostensibly the one who most deeply sought to explore life’s meaning. George is the one who was on a spiritual quest, and it led him to playing the sitar and meditation, explorations that changed the band’s style and its members’ behavior. Scorsese makes very good documentaries of the archival, illustrative, rather than investigative kind. It’s an interesting paradox that a man in the middle of a media circus like George Harrison of the Beatles would go on serious search of inner peace and deeper understanding. Harrison explains this in a vintage TV interview. He says they found great material success early in life and so found out early that it was not the answer.
The Beatles must be among the most documented entertainers in history. There’s no shortage of material, including plenty of interview footage with Harrison and people interviewed recently about him, like Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, later Eric Idle. But is this the way to get to the core of a life? Is this the way to get an insight into some of the most popular of all pop music? Scorsese provides a glossy survey, with great sound when the songs come (though they’re not always allowed to run long enough) , and with plenty of sighs and gasps and chuckles along the way. And we have a good organizer: David Tedeschi, who edited Scorsese’s superb Dylan bio, also did the editing here.
The film begins with Harrison’s youth, then the Beatles’ early days from Hamburg to the meteoric media rise, much of it narrated via letters home from George, writing to his mother. As Peter DeBurge of Variety points out, Scorsese assumes an audience already “up to speed” on the Beatles story and therefore does not bother to introduce some of the speakers till several hours in. Among the “many small details omitted along the way” is Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s lost bassist, not even fully named, and nothing much is explained about the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein till the moment of his death in his early thirties (also unexplained). Black and white still photographs are often beautiful, finely rendered, and introduced at just the right moment, but not provided with much context. Though this documentary (which runs to over three and a half hours) provides a wealth of material, it seems more celebratory than informative.
The key trajectory, of course, is Harrison’s shift to eastern music and thought. There’s more than one hint that LSD opened portals of perception that Harrison knew needed to be kept open by natural means. It’s clear that Harrison became not just a pupil but a friend of Ravi Shankar. This orientalism led the Beatles to go from being the adorable pop band for screaming teenage girls through the Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band to a Sixties and Seventies cultural icon worthy of endless interpretation and academic scrutiny.
Somehow George Harrison went from coolness and inner peace to far too many drugs and a burnt-out voice. The film doesn’t offer anybody who can explain this. Could it be something it does describe, the fact that Eric Clapton went off with George Harrison’s wife? The hard parts come in Part II. This is when 1970 comes, the Sixties ends, the group breaks up (nothing about the rift caused by Yoko Ono). Harrison makes his solo albums, gives the Bangladesh concert, gets involved with Monty Python and funds their Life of Brian, starts his own film production company, and moves to the giant Victorian mansion, Friar Park: the film turns personal, and ends with Harrison’s stabbing and subsequent death from cancer.
After Lennon’s assassination the film infomrs us how Harrison spent a lot of time preparing for death and in doing so managed to be in a state of relative wisdom and peace and positivity when the end came.
DeBurge argues that of all the Beatles Harrison is the most worthy of a detailed portrait because of the way he changed and sought answers to the deepest questions about life’s meaning. But that is debatable. McCartney is the musical genius of the group. I personally would like to learn more about the music and how they made it, topics that seem secondary here, except for some good interviews with producers, including Phil Spector. And Lennon is still arguably the most charismatic and intellectually complex personality and, of course, he has been documented well already for that reason. I don’t think this ranks with Scorsese’s Bob Dylan biography; but it’s not like you’d want to miss this if you are a Sixties or pop music fan. There is a handsome coffee table book to accompany it.
Screened for this review at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, in which it is a main slate selection. Also opened in the UK on October 4, 2011.
DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE
STARS: GEORGE, PAUL, RINGO, JOHN, AND OTHERS
RUNTIME: 208 MINS