Aside from being a lousy whitewash out to prove God-knows-what, Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World doesn’t even live up to some simple realities, things like the fact that when you’re Martin Scorsese, you most certainly do have a huge responsibility when taking on such an undertaking. Nobody will ever again have your resources, access or your name, and the sobriety of purpose and sheer cred that goes with it.
And now, to super-complicate matters really interestingly, we have Hugo, easily one of Scorsese’s top five films, a masterpiece, coming mere months on the heels of the Harrison debacle. The two films, in eternal orbit and connected by “George” as a name and notion – of the guitar player and his revolution in sound, and of the disgraced special effects trailblazer, Georges Méliès, who, in our world, delighted a small, asthmatic Italian-American boy in Little Italy almost 60 years ago with his lowest-fi wonders.
My sense is that Scorsese – a Catholic boomer from the age of Aquarius, director of Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ – simply could not have made Hugo without the mysteries of Harrison’s persona and life-long mysticism nagging him on. It’s just a damned pity that a huge chunk of facts, music history and Harrison’s vast, real legacy had to be the sacrificial lamb for Scorsese’s beautiful triumph.
So am I arguing that artists have responsibilities? Nope, no way. Do journalists? Yes. Absolutely.
The irony is that the methods and mindset that serve Hugo so well are poison to Material World. Before we move on, though, a quick view of both films.
Material World offers a superfan’s mind-blow of previously unearthed Beatles and Harrison footage to drag us through a brilliantly edited but still relentlessly middlebrow, Ken Burns-like take on The Beatles and Harrison.
You know the drill. Grew up in grim, post-war Liverpool. Played crap clubs with John, Paul and Ringo until gaining world domination. Became entranced with Indian culture, the sitar and transcendental meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Made the magisterial All Things Must Pass solo record with the insane Phil Spector, now imprisoned for murder. Formed The Travelling Wilburys with Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Did too much coke at some point. Got cancer, beat it. Suffered a knife attack by an insane person. Got cancer again, died peacefully. Every so often something new and interesting pops up – Harrison was a race car driver? – only to be summarily deleted.
In general, Scorsese behaves as if his love of music will cover for the fact he truly doesn’t understand the thing, how it works or why the damned it so bewitches and obsesses him.
On the other hand, Hugo finds Scorsese not only at home in multiple cinematic languages and dialects, but talking about talking those languages. And so 3D not only works as immersion technique, but as an element with its own sacred history in a film that assumes longing for the cinematic experience and love of illusions as basic currencies.
The incredible richness of Scorsese’s visual languages allows him to express Harrisonian spiritual values delivered with an Amélie-like breathlessness and a neo-Gaultier splendor. (If costume designer Sandy Powell doesn’t win an Oscar for her designs, heads will roll – to speak only of heads.) As much as The Tree of Life is intrinsically Christian, Hugo is deeply Eastern in tradition, a film of real and metaphorical deaths and rebirths, of spirit animating the material world.
The film’s about Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a smudge-face Dickensian literally marking time by minding a Paris train station’s clocks and trying to repair the broken, beautiful automaton gifted to him by his deceased dad (Jude Law).
Hugo’s enemy is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), once a foster child, now a spiritually broken policeman crippled by war. (Scorsese/Cohen/writer John Logan only play Gustav for laughs until they understand the true depths of his brokenness).
By the way, we already we know far more about Hugo’s fictional characters than we ever learn about anyone in Material World. Just saying.
Scorsese’s film, the stuff of John Logan’s script (itself based on Brian Selznick’s book), unfolds a series of beautiful, almost Hindu cycles of death – Hugo’s dad and uncle’s passing – of birth – Isabelle’s discovery of cinema, the “awakening” of the automaton – and rebirth – the automaton coming to “life,” Georges’ films rediscovered, his reputation, his essence, Inspector Gustav healed of the burns of a bad childhood.
Along with its spiritual transcendences and heroic humanism, Hugo addresses, delights in and celebrates film history through mostly-fictional characters, fantastic devices and interlocking, exquisitely alive tableaus.
The reason this works with Méliès and not Harrison would seem obvious: most of Méliès’ films were destroyed after World War I, most Americans have no idea who he was, most historians have no idea what the “real” man was like. And so there’s no such thing as “doing” Méliès inaccurately. Harrison’s life, on the other hand, as we see in Scorsese’s own film, is ridiculously open to scrutiny, which means the director has to work that much harder to float his revision.
In Hugo, fiction about fact frees Scorsese. In Material World, what we get is an attempt to mold fact to fit intent. After a while, it’s like a root canal; the only painless part is when it’s over.
Off and on, people – mostly unidentified – declare George’s playing to be “soulful.” This means nothing. Paul and Ringo – both acquitting themselves with warmth and grace – speak of their fallen mate with respect, with Paul saying he was the best musician by far when they started, which is something as George was, like, 17 years old at The Beatles’ beginning. Whatever – I eat this stuff up with a spoon, Paul and Ringo’s humbled late-life understanding of their band’s magnificence.
But aside from the static, overlong middle section of the film involving George’s interest in the sitar and Ravi Shankar, there’s not much in the way of musical insight. Scorsese seems so bent on fuck-knows-what, he misses the ready-made metaphor for Harrison’s spiritual quest sitting right there on his AVID screens.
It’s Harrison’s mysterious morph from the edgy, all-elbows player on early hits like “Don’t Bother Me” to the soaring transcendent slide guitarist you hear on Badfinger’s “Day After Day” (not in the film) and pretty much everywhere after the White Album.
What happened? How did he change? This is exciting stuff – the sound of a man’s soul in transition!
The Clapton infatuation is, however, a side effect of what’s really wrong: Scorsese refusing to leave his boomer bubble for context or insights, and in so doing, missing Harrison’s vast contributions beyond his own first edition vinyl collection.
Based on what’s here, Harrison is a minor figure – no big deal, used to be in The Beatles, saw God, Ommmmmmm.... You’d never know that Harrison’s early Beatles compositions (think “If I Needed Someone”), with their signature bell-toned arpeggios, tightly harmonized, octave-sweeping melodies and oddly chorded middle-eights, provided the vocabulary for New Wave, power pop and indie pop, inspiring/defining everyone/everything from Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and Glenn Tilbrook to David Bowie’s wholesale theft of the song in “Blue Jean” to Elliot Smith’s post-Brit Invasion confessional aesthetic.
You’d never know that, as much as John Lennon, Harrison brought the ways and modes of the avant-garde into pop, whether it was the teeth-rattling extreme dissonances in “I Want to Tell You,” the tape-loop floaty-ness of “Blue Jay Way” or the triumphant wall of feedback in “It’s All Too Much.”
Meanwhile, wouldn’t it be clean fun to chart Harrison’s perversely “WTF?” appearances on records by Belinda Carlisle (The Go-Go’s), Fleetwood Mac and Electric Light Orchestra?
Who was that George? In particular, the George who, again like the Georges Méliès of Hugo, lived to enjoy a late-life resurgence with 1987 Top Ten hits like “Got My Mind Set on You,” “When We Was Fab” and the album Cloud Nine? You’re not going to hear much about that George. In order to buy the mystic-dude-in-the-material-world shtick, you have to – simply have to – accept that an entire fifteen or so years of Harrison’s life didn’t much matter.
Actually, Harrison seems to leave Scorsese’s radar as soon as the counter-culture dissipated. Which means that Harrison only has meaning for the director if he’s attached to a larger context, like the perky midlife crisis that was The Traveling Wilburys.
What does compel more than anything in the film comes from the artist’s cocaine days (told you I’d get back to this.). Not because it limns him bottoming out way, but because Harrison with his throat trashed by blow doing godawful Philly-soul-inflected versions of his hits so utterly deconstructs the narrative Scorsese has so painstakingly constructed. Because it turns Scorsese into Jake LaMotta beating his own film, which, for a few moments, is incredibly liberating. Here and only here is the Scorsese we all love and admire, the actual artist willing to go way out on a ledge.
Who is this George Harrison sarcastically mixing a throat concoction recommended by Barbara Streisand? We’ve been hearing, in draughts here and there, about an anger living beneath George’s placidity, a cooled, arched-eyebrow lividity amping up even early solos.
And here, in his cocaine days, finally, that anger twitches near the surface and Harrison cackles. You get the sense that if a mantra showed up, this George Harrison would spit at it and laugh.
I wish Scorsese had started here, or referenced this more. Not because it’s “dark,” or what I want to see, but because it’s true, because it goes beyond the firewall of the Harrison legend and because, if you want the mystery of George Harrison, it’s hidden in plain sight.
I want to believe that Material World will be forgotten – an aberration in a great career. I know Hugo will be remembered as long as cinema exists in any form.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.
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