This is the unedited version of a post that first appeared on Boston Magazine’s web page, for which I regularly write about music and my day job marketing and selling real estate.
I was born in 1966. By the time I was conscious, the Beatles were a given, their music everywhere. By the time I was record-buying age, most of their music had been analyzed to death. Accumulating their back catalog on vinyl felt like going back to read canonical works of classic literature. The listening experience was less a personal discovery than, “OK, I see what the big deal is.”
But discovering George Harrison’s masterpiece, his first solo record, All Things Must Pass, was something else. This indeed felt like a revelation, as if there could still be some Beatles-related stone left unturned. Of course, this notion is silly. The single, “My Sweet Lord” hit number one in 1971, the year I was entering kindergarten. I remember it all over AM radio (WABC in New York) and it has to be counted in my favorite songs to this day. In fact, along with the Jackson Five singles, it is one of my earliest musical memories, hearing songs on the radio that would set me off on my path as a musician and pop music fan.
But as with one of the other pillars of my musical foundation, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., (shameless plug:) about which I wrote a book, All Things Must Pass seemed like an impenetrable behemoth of a record. The catchy “My Sweet Lord” (so catchy it resulted in a lawsuit for ripping off “He’s So Fine”) was only a gateway into the three-record set, one of the first non-classical L.P.s that I had seen in a box instead of a sleeve. Access was not easy for those of us without record-collecting older siblings or rock & roll parents. This album was not out front in stores by the time I was an adolescent with enough paper-route money to buy albums. And by the time you found it, it was relatively expensive.
Once in, though, the listener is welcomed with arguably (I have already heard the arguments. Loud. Often slurred, in barrooms) the finest solo record from any of the Beatles: a deep treasure trove of rich, sublime songwriting, performances (especially George’s singing), and production (Phil Spector). The songs present a cogent point of view and hang together as a whole. The album is not a concept record per se, but we really feel as if we are hearing a cohesive piece about one man’s perspective on life, spirituality, love, and death. It makes us want to know more about the writer and singer, in no small part because it feels so genuinely personal.
Which makes Martin Scorcese’s HBO documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World a bit of a letdown. We all know all this stuff about the Beatles. The history is as traversed as that of Shakespeare (and more people can tell you about how Ringo got his name than the motivation of the protagonists in Macbeth). We tuned in to see the perspective of one genius (Scorcese) on that of another (Harrison). But all we got in part one was yet another surface skimming of well-trod Beatles lore, peppered with a few new pictures or film clips. Part two went only slightly deeper.
When we saw the trailer for this documentary a month or two back, it was exciting in its promise, and how could it not be with its compelling and deep subject: “the quiet one,” the “dark horse,” a restless and searching soul who grows up Catholic in rough-and-tumble postwar Liverpool and rides one of the greatest upward trajectories in the 20th Century as a member (but not one of the leaders) of collaborative group with perhaps the greatest cultural impact of its time. Scorcese’s examination of Harrison’s role in the music of the Beatles is only cursory, limited pretty much to just Paul McCartney doing that Paul McCartney thing that goes something like this (paraphrasing only slightly):
When I was writing a song called “Hey Jude” (starts to sing a little of “Hey Jude” so we know which song from his old band, the Beatles, he is referring to), George started playing some guitar leads between each line. And I said, “Hey, George, you can’t put a guitar lead after each line.” And he started to say I was becoming demanding. And I was demanding. It was my song. We were all demanding with our own songs.
When I was writing a song called “And I Love Her” (starts to sing a little of “And I love Her” so we know which song from his old band, the Beatles, he is referring to), George started playing some guitar riffs after each line. (He sings again) “I give her all my love (dow dow dow dow). That’s all I do (dow dow dow dow).” George made the song! He said, “Oh, it needs a riff.”
This is the sort of stuff we want to hear more of: the musical impact of George and how his personality both influenced and was influenced by being a member of the Beatles. The guy who came of age playing lead guitar on the songs of perhaps the great songwriting team of all time and, in the process, learned how to write songs that plumbed subject matter like his own soul searching. Songs like, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” We want to know more about the man behind them. We only get brief interview snippets from his brothers. We expect Scorcese to come back to them. He never does. And we get some minor discussions of his well-known personality traits from Macca, Ringo, and Astrid Kirchherr.
As expected, part two goes a bit deeper into the man as he entered into the post-Beatles part of his life. There is some valuable insight here, directly from his wife, Olivia, Dhani, his son, and from Ringo and Paul. However, this is no exaggeration, there is more factual detail in George’s Wikipedia entry than there is in 3.5 hours of footage from Scorcese. If the director had chosen to approach his subject in, say, an impressionistic style, then we could forgive the fact that we are left not knowing how many records George released, never mind who played on them, how he wrote more of the songs, etc. Yes, we have scattered anecdotes from Eric Clapton, and the brief interviews with Phil Spector before he was sent off to prison, but we are left wanting more of that sort of depth and insight. Scorcese, though, chose to make this in pretty much a straight documentary style, one without narration, so we are basically left with an introductory chronology to this compelling subject (this happened, and then this happened…) But we don’t even find out, for example, how George and Olivia met (she was working in the office of his record company, according to Wikipedia).
One of my favorite filmmakers, Scorcese has been disappointing me since the truly awful The Departed. The No Direction Home: Bob Dylan documentary he made was excellent, but the Shine a Light concert film of the Rolling Stones will certainly never be as regarded as his other live concert doc, The Last Waltz. Why did Scorcese waste so much time rehashing Beatles stuff we already know? Where is the new insight? A couple of Ken Burns-style recitation of letters home is all the glimpse we get into that it was like to be in the whirlwind? George was first and foremost a musician and we are left with precious little discussion of his musicianship, songwriting, production style (never mind his work as a producer), or recorded legacy as a solo artist. Given this subject and a privileged level of access, Scorcese had a fastball over the middle of the plate and struck out like A Rod ending the season for the Yankees last night.