‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’ / ‘Under Control’

Pop star to power plant, all things must pass


Director Martin Scorsese was one of the first to score big with the rockumentary format with his 1978 film “The Last Waltz,” which covered the farewell concert by The Band and their musician friends such as Neil Young and Van Morrison. He’s kept a hand in it ever since, making boomer rock docs on Bob Dylan (“No Direction Home”) and The Rolling Stones (“Shine a Light”). His latest, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” is a loving tribute to singer/guitarist Harrison, which gives “the quiet Beatle” the sort of respect usually reserved for John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

While Harrison provided the fleet fingers The Beatles needed for lead guitar early on, he was slow to blossom as a songwriter, although by the time of The Beatles’ last studio album, “Abbey Road,” he was arguably providing their best songs (“Something,” “Here Comes the Sun”). Yet Harrison’s other influences on the band — psychedelics, meditation and Eastern spirituality, and Indian instrumentation — were clear.

The film follows Harrison’s life well past The Beatles, continuing through his solo successes (“Dark Horse”), the first rock-star charity benefit, Concert for Bangladesh, and his super-group stint with The Travelling Wilburys. Scorsese takes the usual approach of mixing period footage and photos with contemporary interviews with Harrison’s friends and family, including his widow, Olivia, who gives a dramatic account of the night Harrison was stabbed by an intruder in their home; filmmaker Terry Gilliam, who describes how Harrison mortgaged his home to put up the funds for Monty Python to complete their controversial “Life of Brian”; and fellow guitar hero/rival in love Eric Clapton, who famously fell for Harrison’s first wife, Patti Boyd.

Scorsese’s best find seems to be a collection of Harrison’s private letters, showing a man who — despite becoming the bearded hippie mystic seeker for a generation — rather touchingly always felt the need to explain his actions to his mom.

Yet Ringo Starr notes that “George was very black and white,” and the film doesn’t seek to saint Harrison, a problem that has afflicted so many Lennon documentaries. Harrison’s Hare Krishna spirituality is well known, but like nearly all rock stars, he had plenty of opportunities to indulge in drugs and groupies. Bassist Klaus Voorman, who also played with Lennon, notes how “George is a very extreme character, whether it’s cocaine or kindness.”

It’s easy to see what draws Scorsese so close to his subject: Harrison’s struggles with fame, artistic integrity, drugs and spiritual searching all have parallels in the director’s own life. (Scorsese came close to joining a seminary before becoming a filmmaker, while his post-“Last Waltz” coke-induced breakdown is well documented.)

Not least is Harrison’s position of being the overlooked talent, something Scorsese long had a complex about as his peers Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola enjoyed successful careers, while he had to fight long and hard to get each film made until quite recently.

‘Under Control” is typical of a certain strand of contemporary (and mostly Euro) art cinema, which feels that merely observing something is superior to commenting on it. The philosophy is to simply record what you see, and let the viewer make the judgements.

This studied reserve becomes rather frustrating when sitting through “Under Control” (originally “Unter Kontrolle”), a documentary that looks in and around several nuclear reactors in Germany (all of which are due to be phased out by 2035). “Under Control,” which is subtitled “An Archaeology of Nuclear Energy,” uses lots of slow tracking shots and zooms to focus on the steam-belching towers that dwarf the rural landscapes in which they are placed, or the science-fictionlike process of inserting fuel rods into the core; it’s almost more about the structures than anything else.

Director Volker Sattel has stated that he believes “nuclear power has been demonized” in Germany; while he avoids overt editorializing, his film is full of serious-looking men running immaculate-looking machinery and performing rigorous safety drills. One operator describes how they can shut down the reactor within one to three seconds, adding, “There’s almost zero possibility of people messing up the system.”

Fair enough — Germany has not had a serious nuclear accident in the decades it has operated its reactors. But local viewers surely can’t help thinking of the Homer Simpson-esque ineptitude of Tepco, with its two-page tsunami plan, falsified safety records and corroded pipes patched with plastic sheeting and duct tape. With 4,500 sq. km of Japan evacuated, contamination spreading and an estimated ¥4.5 trillion bill that will likely be picked up by the taxpayer, it’s hard, verging on impossible, to just consider the technology divorced from its consequences.