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

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December 16, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

From the co-director of The U.S. Versus John Lennon comes the story of a less legendary man closely tied to that legend. Couple of thoughts.

At the very least Scheinfeld opted to interview those who knew Harry best, and it shows. The ultimate irony being that they didn’t know him very well. His cousin and confidant is interviewed extensively and makes it known that Harry didn’t like to talk about his internal condition; if it was too painful he bottled it up. There are a lot of guys talking about how crazy and spontaneous Harry was, but they can’t seem to recall anything specific about his intemperance. Robin Williams is asked (off-screen) about any wild moments with Harry, and appropriately he can’t remember any, though he knows they happened. Who is Harry Nilsson? Only one man knows. Why is everybody talkin’ about him? They aren’t1. Though it’s a nice thought.

The director/editor does nothing special here. Rather than making a film in the spirit of Nilsson, he makes something so straight that I’m sure Harry himself wouldn’t approve of it. One of the most endearing things about Nilsson even today is his wacky sense of humor, but there’s no humor in this. His career was about as mercurial as they come, yet the film doesn’t attempt even to imitate that superficiality in its narrative. I thought the title might be an ironic segue into a discussion on the nature of success which in Nilsson’s case was largely making other artists successful with his songs. Nope. The film is just (an attempt at) a straight answer to the title’s straight question. If you’re unfamiliar with the man, this might be a good place to start. But you know what’s even better? Listening to his records. Radical I know.

This is a talking heads biodoc. Be prepared to listen to some rather droll geriatrics reminisce about Harry Nilsson. Maybe I just don’t get this kind of documentary, but I don’t want a lesson in chronology. If I can get roughly the same amount of information by opening up a wikipedia article, then what’s the point? I also don’t need (less talented people like) Mickey Dolenz telling me that Nilsson was a great talent. I don’t need (a frankly creepy) Van Dyke Parks telling me how melodious the man was. Maybe some do. I don’t know. But it all seems rather self-congratulatory. “Hey, I knew that guy. I was there when he famously did this or that.” Great. You knew him. Congratulations.

All this gabbing leads to an unintentionally hilarious serial involving Nilsson’s original record producer, Rick Jarrard. He spends some minutes talking about his influence on Nilsson’s career, how he pulled him out of obscurity and so on and so forth. Rather sad in its self-absorption. The punchline is that Harry dropped him unsentimentally with nothing more than a handwritten note, a turn of events that Jarrard to this day finds inexplicable. He says the two never ran into each other again. I can’t imagine how many sleepless nights Jarrard had in subsequent years as Nilsson got on with The Beatles and won awards for his (better-produced) records. You really have to see it to get the full force, but Jarrard comes off as the biggest loser ever in this doc.

Unlike 30 Century Man, a similar biodoc treatment of Scott Walker, a similarly reclusive and recently resurrected talent, I don’t think this one would benefit from musicologist musings on the artist’s place in history in general. Someone tell me why that is. Perhaps a more acute comparison is with Jandek on Corwood. Jandek, like Nilsson, never performed live (at least when the doc was made), preferring to let the recordings speak for themselves. As a result Jandek on Corwood is plagued by a similar futility. Hip critics laying out their theories on who the artist might really be and, failing that, the importance of the work of a non-entity. They spend an hour and a half teasing out clues to his identity and his origins based upon album covers, liner notes and of course the music itself.

With all that said, there are a few moments of interest. Not so much due to the filmmaker’s talents, but due to a very interesting subject. The sudden death of John Lennon, a man roughly the same age as Nilsson, must have been rough—I didn’t know for instance that Nilsson went full-steam with anti-handgun activism afterward, starting his own organization and even going on television to promote it. He never did anything halfway, and a lot of the time his energy was misdirected. It’s clear that the same energy went onto his records and into his drug abuse, which often accompanied recording sessions. An audiotaped interview of Nilsson himself narrates a good deal of this which results in the most insightful moments, where one can glean at least some of his influences2 as there is no attempt on the film’s part to explore the source of his unusual songwriting talent and nothing interesting offered up by Nilsson’s favorite artist to cover, Randy Newman. However, snippets of Nilsson’s recorded output are sprinkled throughout to good effect, if only because they remind the viewer just how ineffable a thing the music is and how impotent theory and criticism and biography are in the face of such a soul-searing voice.

Meanwhile, some wonderful archival stills and video clips buttress the album cuts and almost make the doc worthwhile, particularly the amusing BBC “Live” Session (not really in front of a crowd, but made to look like it for a television audience) and an appearance on the Playboy After Dark television series where Nilsson sports a black blazer, black turtle neck sweater and gold chain necklace. Even a few excerpts pop up from the ultra rare film Son of Dracula produced between Harry and his bosom buddy and best man Ringo Starr.

1 The extent of the film’s theatrical run was all of 3 screens. As of this writing, 200 votes on IMDb.

2 A notable songwriting insight: the song “One”, a hit for Three Dog Night, was written to the monotone rhythm of a telephone busy signal. Neat.