Remember Harry Nilsson? It depends— in large part, on how old you are. Unlike some major talents, Harry’s life, music and legacy have been largely forgotten or at least overlooked since his career peeked in the mid 1970s.
Thankfully, writer/director John Scheinfeld has not forgotten Harry, reminding us what a talent he was through the musings of the singer/songwriter’s family, friends, business associates and fellow musicians. The result is the 2010 documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)
If the name Nilsson doesn’t sound familiar, some of the songs he made famous may. Consider Midnight Cowboy’s “Everybody’s Talkin' at Me.” While Harry didn’t write the song, he sang the heck out of it, and won a Grammy for his efforts. He did write, "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City", which has a similar feel. While it was rejected as the film’s theme, it still managed to makeits way up the charts and into a Sophia Loren film.
Remember “Remember” and/or ”The Puppy Song”? Both, along with Nilsson’s version of “Over the Rainbow”, were featured years after their release in You’ve Got Mail. Harry’s biggest hit, “Without You” (written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans”), earned him a second Grammy. Other well-loved Nilsson songs include “One is the Loneliest Number” and a kooky little ditty called “Coconut” (“Bruder bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime, his sister had anudder one she paid it for de lime…You put de lime in de coconut, you drank ‘em bot’ up…”)
Nilsson wrote most, but not all of his hits, as well as dozens of others for others, including Little Richard, the Monkees, Yardbirds and Three Dog Night, who hit it big with Harry’s “One”. Nilsson also wrote The Point - a lovely little children’s animated musical narrated by his friend, Ringo Starr. If you or your children haven’t seen it, make it a point to put it on your wish list.
But Scheinfeld’s documentary is far more than a visual discography. It is an in-depth look at a complicated life: the story of one funny, talented, complicated, mean-spirited, high-spirited, warm, generous, over-indulged and under-appreciated musician who, like many artists of his era, played too hard and died too soon.
Much of Harry’s story is told by his oldest and dearest, many of whom are legends in their own right. You’ll hear from Paul Williams, who wrote two of the Carpenter’s biggest hits, the Muppets' "Rainbow Connection", and, along with Barbra Streisand, the ever-popular "Evergreen".
Also on hand is Randy Newman, the multi-talented musician/ composer/performer who wrote, among other things, the soundtracks for the Toy Story films, The Natural and Avalon, along with Jimmy Webb, who penned such chart-busters as "MacArthur Park", "Didn’t We", Up Up and Away" and the bulk of Glen Campbell's hits. Webb is seen throughout the film, speaking both candidly and affectionately about his long-lost friend and fellow musician. And that’s just for starters.
Truth be told, I’ve never seen a film where so many famous folks went on camera to talk about a fellow performer with such obvious affection, respect, and sadness. Among them, Robin Williams, the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, Yoko Ono, and Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle – whose comments, along with Webb’s were particularly interesting. We even hear from the man himself, thanks to an unfinished documentary he took part in while recording his Son of Schmilsson album. Notably absent, is Ringo Starr, who was by all accounts, Harry’s best friend. The former Beatle is seen, along with other members of the Fab four, in stills and clips, but either was not approached, or declined to be interviewed for the film.
A-listers aside, Nilsson and his songbook are the real stars of the film, just as they should be. You’ll learn how many of his songs came to be written and/or recorded, his state of mind at the time, and how his lifestyle impacted his voice, from the people who were at the scene of the crime. Among them, Richard Perry (Thelma & Louise, Lean on Me), animator/producer and director Fred Wolf, and composer/artist Van Dyke Parks.
Like so many of the others, Parks is also quick to praise, as he talks about Harry’s gift as a writer, referring to Nilsson’s “cartoon consciousness", which he defines as "using a few lines very wisely to demonstrate something.” I loved the phrase, and the whole idea of it, even more so as I listened to Harry’s lyrics, and Park’s piano demonstrating the way the man said so much musically, as in the heart-pumping, energy-boosting "Gotta Get Up", a song that was apparently written to the beat of a telephone’s busy signal.
Gotta get up
Gotta get out
Gotta get home before the morning comes
What if I’m late?
Gotta big date
Gotta get home before the sun comes up
Before I saw Who is Harry Nilsson? I knew very little about the man. Had I been asked, I probably would have said that he was British, as much of his music sounds like something the Beatles might have written. Apparently that’s one reason why they were attracted to it and to him, seeking him out, and bringing him into the fold.
Like the Beatles, Harry was equally at home writing sublimely silly and incredibly complex lyrics, melodies and rhythm patterns. Among his Beatlesque recordings, the child-like “Me and My Arrow”, and the aforementioned “One is the Loneliest Number” and “Gotta Get Up.”
Though there were some love songs in Harry’s repertoire, he generally didn’t write or sing about the usual suspects. Case in point, Harry’s ode to his “Good Old Desk”. Ostensibly about a piece of furniture, many believe - despite Harry’s denials - that the desk was a metaphor for God, as an ever-present, spiritual presence in his mixed-up, often out-of-control life.
Whatever the reason behind his lyrics, it was Harry’s gift for word-crafting and story telling that set the bar, as in the heart-wrenchingly autobiographical "1941".
Well in 1941 a happy father had a son
And by 1944, the father walked right out the door
In '45, the mom and son were still alive
But who could tell in '46 if the two were to survive
Born on Father’s Day, Harry Nilsson became fatherless at three, when he dad left and presumably died in World War II. Life from three to thirteen was spent in relative poverty, and I do mean, relative. Living in the overcrowded home of an uncle, he dropped out of school and took a job as an usher in a local movie theater. When he lost his job, his uncle told him that he could no longer afford him. It was all the restless teenager needed to hit the road and head for LA.
Who is Harry Nilsson… follows him there, leading the viewer through the twists and turns of his life via clips and photos from private collections, bits and pieces of Harry’s music, segments of a BBC concert, and a multitude of reflections regarding his life choices, unmistakable wit, undeniable charm, up and down sides, loves, losses, successes and failures.
Such failures were often prompted by the excesses that also fueled him. The breakup of his first marriage produced the x-rated, “You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearin’ it apart, so f--- you.” Of questionable taste, it nonetheless struck a chord with George Harrison and friends, who were both saddened and angry with their friend for dying on them. Breaking out in song at Harry’s grave site, it was his words that expressed their feelings.
Conversely, it is the feelings of those who Nilsson left behind, that drive this engaging film. The DVD's bonus section only adds to the wealth of material, with more clips focusing on Nilsson’s musicality, generosity, addictions, and everything in between.
Like many films I write about, Who is Harry Nilsson? is not, at least at first glance, for everyone. Certainly people in the entertainment industry and Nilsson fans will find it engrossing. But to put it in the same category as an MTV special, movie-of-the-week or Biography episode would be to dismiss a well-researched, highly personal film that addresses the way one man was impacted (some would say blindsided) by his fame, and how his troubled past influenced his future.
There is little doubt that the senior Nilsson’s departure affected his son in a very profound way. Ironically, some twenty years later, he would desert his eldest son, Zak, under similar circumstances. Reflecting on his father's departure, his son says somewhat hopefully,"I’m pretty sure that ‘s not how he intended it to be”, and hopefully, he’s right. Zak’s mom believes that Harry liked the idea of being a dad, but wasn’t ready to be a father. “The reality was just too much for him,” she says generously, given the things she could have said.
That the boy’s first real one-on-one time with his dad was also his last, says something thing about Harry. But just when you think you’ve sized him up, Scheinfeld introduces us to Harry’s second family, all of whom paint him as a near-perfect, devoted family man, despite his love of liquor, drugs and high adventure.
But then, a lot of people loved Harry. They loved, hated, admired, ran with and worked along side him. More than a few were used and discarded by him – seemingly without rhyme or reason. And yet, even those who had a bone to pick, including the Smothers Brothers, whose come-back, opening night performance at LA’s Troubadour was totally destroyed by the constant heckling of the inebriated Nilsson and Lennon, were quick to praise Harry’s talent.
Whether this documentary is or isn’t your cup of tea, I urge you to search out Nilsson’s music, most of which is as relevant as ever. Last May, James Durbin, one of the most talented American Idol hopefuls, sang “Without You”, bringing tears to his and everyone else’s’ eyes (“I can’t live, if living is without you, I can’t live, I can’t give anymore…”). Other Nilsson tunes continue to grace the soundtracks of films and TV shows like Life on Mars, My Name is Earl, Confessions of A Shopaholic, You Don't Know Jack, and Bones.
Harry Nilsson passed away on January 15, 1994 – the same day LA was rocked by a major earthquake. Felled by a heart attack sparked by a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. Though his death came as no surprise, the aftershocks of his passing hit hard. It is a tribute to his talent that all these years later, those who worked and played with him remember him, despite his shortcomings, as a singular talent, whose music is worth remembering.
Released in 2010, Who is Harry Nilsson? is available on DVD. It is my hope that it will inspire you to see why seventeen years after his death, everybody’s still talking about Harry. Many regard his Nilsson Schmilsson album as his best. I have a special place in my heart for A Little Touch of Schmillson in the Night, which features some of America’s best-loved standards, each one enhanced by Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins’ remarkably lush charts and the London Philharmonic’s phenomenal musicians. While there are some gems among his more recent offerings, my advice would be to save his later stuff for later, and go for the gold.