Regardless of format, biography is as much dependent upon execution as subject matter – if not more so; it’s not exactly a challenge, all bookstore-bound, where to pick up the story of a life lived interestingly is to discover turgid prose and myopic scope. It’s like fiction in that respect; if the reader doesn’t feel emotionally engaged with the characterization (however that engagement may manifest itself), I’d be asking for my money back.
Thus the predominant flaw with George Harrison: Living In The Material World, Martin Scorsese’s three hour-plus documentary, which somehow contrived to hit TV, cinema and DVD almost simultaneously. A strong palette of protagonists, yet animated with a surprising lack of depth.
I should probably offer some qualifiers before I continue. No, I’m not directly comparing novels with biography with music themed documentary, merely highlighting strands of similarity. No, I’m perhaps not target audience material for this kind of thing, finding Harrison’s songs (regardless of era) awkward and essentially unstimulating. Yes, having previously experienced much of Scorsese’s documentary output (as well as almost all of his wider filmography), I’m familiar with his stylistic approaches, his studied application of pacing. And yes, I did invest three-plus hours of my time with a genuinely open mind (anyone willing to watch something that long with ridicule as the primary motive is simply a fucking idiot).
Yet qualifiers aside, this is ultimately a constricted and underwhelming documentary, as surprisingly incurious of its subject matter as it is holed by reverence. The film’s narrative comes courtesy of archive footage, home movies, and exclusive interview, a technique best suited to intimate storyline and expansive first-person. And it’s not an approach that necessarily compliments Material World; the over-familiarity of archive material, the unexceptional quality to previously unseen footage, and a conveyor belt of obvious talking heads – many offering anecdote in lieu of insight, that degree of self-serving smugness that comes from interviewing a cast of earnest multi-millionaires. There’s an element of eulogy to all this – and fair enough, the film is an obvious labour of love – but there-in lies another problem; the warmth the director feels for his subject matter sanitises many of the biographical elements. George Harrison was a complex obtuse, flawed person – I can claim this with confidence, being human myself – and yet these facets, the stuff that would have revealed a closer blueprint of character, were briefly glossed over or indirectly referred to. The strange dichotomies of George Harrison – the spiritual, almost pious man living in a gothic pile half the size of Buckinghamshire; the sensitive figure who failed mention a certain John Lennon in his autobiography – themes left unexplored.
So yeah. Three-plus hours hours. A warm profile. Could have done with a better soundtrack. And more importantly, I could have done with understanding something of the man; three hours of reverence is perhaps a little too much.