The unexamined, wonderful/horrible life is not worth living

Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?

on September 10, 2010 by Steve Simels

Harry Nilsson was a brilliant but troubled pop phenom (singer, songwriter, arranger, producer) who had it all and came damn close to pissing it all away before his too early death in 1994. Director John Scheinfeld's documentary look at the late Nilsson is one of those occasional examples of its genre that transcends the Inside the Music gimmickry, although perhaps just barely. On the one hand, the film is a cautionary too-much-too-soon story that was a cliché even before what Casey Kasem refers to as the Rock Era; on the other hand, it also has enough touching, amusing and/or appalling episodes to make it compulsively watchable. It helps, of course, that the guy at the heart of it really was a musical genius who deserves the posthumous props. Theatrical prospects should be solid in the short run, but expect a long and profitable life on DVD.

Nilsson's hit singles were landmarks ("Without You"), his albums were massively successful (Nilsson Schmilsson went multi-platinum) and the songs he wrote for other artists ("One," for Three Dog Night) still bear his name before that of the band that played them. For all Nilsson's radio and album ubiquity, particularly in the first half of the '70s, Nilsson was pretty much dismissed as a has-been at the time of his death, more famous for a series of legendary (and legendarily self-destructive) escapades than for his music; the most famous of these incidents involves the night a plastered Nilsson and drinking pal John Lennon heckled the Smothers Brothers during what was supposed to be a comeback club show (Dick and Tommy Smothers, who are among the talking heads director Scheinfeld interviews here, still seem bitter about the incident, probably with good reason). Still, Nilsson's music never really disappeared from the radio (the film's title comes from his first big hit, the theme from the movie Midnight Cowboy), and there's been a sort of groundswell of critical reappraisal for his work of late, which gives the film a surprising topical edge.

The film is best at limning Nilsson's early years, such as the surprisingly Dickensian poverty that seems to provide a clue to the psychological underpinnings of Nilsson's later decline. Scheinfeld is also fortunate in having access to audio tapes Nilsson was making as notes for a projected autobiography, so there are long (and fascinating) sections of the doc where the narrative is literally in Nilsson's voice. Elsewhere, the various oncamera celebrities who reminisce about him--Robin Williams, Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees (Harry's first big break was placing a song on a Monkees album), Monty Python's Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam--are largely unanimous in their lack of sentimentality; as much as they clearly loved the guy, they aren't shy about what an SOB he could be. Harry's treatment of original record producer Rick Jarrard (who tells the story and is clearly still smarting from what he sees as an inexplicable rejection after four decades) seems particularly cold.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest moments of the film are musical. Because Harry never toured and almost never played live in front of an audience, it's kind of a shock how much unfamiliar performance footage Scheinfeld was able to find (including two clips from Hugh Hefner's unintentionally surreal Playboy After Dark). The most memorable sequence, and the one guaranteed to win over anybody unfamiliar or unmoved by Harry's work, is from a 1971 BBC-TV special, where (through the miracle of video-tape editing) a trio of Harrys sits behind a piano and sings a spell-binding three-part harmony version of the New Orleans classic "Let the Good Times Roll." The most jaw-dropping is an excerpt from an uncompleted documentary on the making of the Son of Schmillson album from 1972, in which Harry, dressed in a ridiculous suit and cardboard hat, gets a bunch of seriously old British geezers straight from a rest home to sing along on a tune whose endlessly repeated chorus goes "I'd rather be dead than wet my bed." It's an act of wanton cruelty and by the end really painful to watch, but I still laughed harder at it than at almost anything else I've seem in a movie this year.

Distributor: Lorber Films
Cast: Harry Nilsson, Robin Williams, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson and The Smothers Brothers
Director/Screewriter: John Scheinfeld
Producers: David Leaf and John Scheinfeld
Genre: Documentary/Musical
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 116 min
Release date: September 10 NY


Tags: Harry Nilsson, Robin Williams, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, The Smothers Brothers, John Scheinfeld, David Leaf

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