So Who is Harry Nilsson, Anyway?

Fewer people are asking that question these days thanks to the 2006 documentary which, against all odds, John Scheinfeld spent several years assembling and which seemed to take even longer before it finally started playing- first at film festivals, then via a most-welcome DVD release last year. Most of the hardcore Nilsson fans watched the DVD months ago, but if you’ve been holding out, Snagfilms.com has made it available for streaming online, for a limited time only. Now’s your chance to see what all the fuss is about, if you haven’t already.

Harry Nilsson was a lot of things- genius singer-songwriter, Beatle friend, businessman, charismatic hell-raiser of legendary proportions, activist, loving family man- and this documentary manages to touch on all of the varied aspects of the man’s life and legacy. Through interview segments with a host of his surviving friends, collaborators and acquaintances- Richard Perry, Van Dyke Parks, Eric Idle, Jimmy Webb, Terry Gilliam, May Pang, Micky Dolenz, Yoko Ono, widow Una to name but a few- Scheinfeld paints a portrait of a man who left a legacy of contradictions as well as a career that could have/should have been much more than it turned out to be, but was no less remarkable for all that.

As a lifelong fan, I’ve responded to Nilsson on so many levels over the years- as a musician, who made some of the most clever and interesting music that I’d ever heard, which could be vulgar and sweet, crude and wistful- sometimes in the same song- and as a legendary partier, who hung with the Beatles and many other people that I admired, perhaps to his eventual detriment (though his surviving friends certainly do seem to still love him)…it was just so magnetic to me. Still, for all that I found out about him, it seemed like there was so much that was never revealed- why he didn’t work with Richard Perry, the producer with whom he made his most successful and arguably best records with, again after 1972′s Son of Schmilsson, why he let his career unravel after winning his Grammys in 1971, what he did after his semi-forced retirement, how the heck he could drink so much booze and do so many drugs and still be alive- and it wasn’t really until this documentary finally came out on DVD that I was able to get a lot of answers to my 30 year old questions.

It begins with a scene I’ll never forget because I was watching it happen live- Dustin Hoffman coming out onstage at the 1994 Comic Relief event broadcast and informing everyone that Harry had died, one day before my 34th birthday. From there, it goes on to several personal reminisces from different people, and goes on to examine his life and career not only through his friends, family and collaborators but in his own voice as well (he had been recording notes for a memoir). We find out about his father-abandonment issues, which he wrote about in such great early songs like “Daddy’s Song” and “1941″, how he got a toehold in the music business via the Monkees, the famous Beatle endorsement and subsequent friendship, his early Randy Newman-esque solo album efforts, Midnight Cowboy and “Everybody’s Talkin’” of course, and when he hit the top, with multiple Grammy awards, hit records, famous friends- he pulled back and withdrew in many ways, not believing himself worthy deep down inside and yet, contradictorily, determined to have his own way in every subsequent career decision he ever made, such as the notion to follow up his best-selling album with a jokey, inside-baseball pop music smorgasbord, the no-less-wonderful but daunting to those who don’t get the joke Son of Schmilsson- and then further derail his momentum by recording a remarkable album of 30′s and 40′s standards with Sinatra’s arranger and a full symphony orchestra, way ahead of his time and way beyond the ability of the average pop music fan in 1973 to process. It’s at this point where the 30 year old question I had about why Perry and Harry never recorded together again gets answered. All the notorious “Lost Weekend” party stories, with Lennon, Pang, Dolenz, Ringo (who declined to be interviewed for this doc; while understandable, it does make it seem a little incomplete), Keith Moon, and others are recounted with great humor and equal sadness at times. This is one of the few places you’ll see extended parts of the film he made with Ringo in 1974, the woefully bad, but no less fascinating “horror-musical-comedy” Son of Dracula as well as many clips from the aborted documentary that was made about the Son of Schmilsson sessions, Did Someone Drop His Mouse? (you can see that in sections on YouTube, by the way), and even a little-seen 1973 short film, Harry and Ringo’s Night Out. His subsequent career is lightly touched on, more on that later, as is his involvement in the Popeye movie and the 80′s all star Yoko Ono tribute album,  his film producer career, failed gun-control activism in the wake of his pal Lennon’s murder, sadly aborted comeback (when will SOMEONE finish those tapes and get them out?) and his family life, even featuring input from several of his children. It concludes with touching reminisces by Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb, and finally Una that certainly got me a little misty, I’ll tell you that. But the account of the funeral, which took place at the same time as the 1994 Northridge earthquake and features Mark Hudson reminiscing about singing at Harry’s grave with George Harrison and others, is funny and bittersweet at the same time, appropriately enough since Harry’s music was often just like that.

It’s not perfect- Scheinfeld gives very short shrift to the music Harry made post-Pussy Cats; many of those releases are some of my favorites of the records he made. Of course, I know he only had so much time to play with, but I was disappointed. Some of the juxtapositions are unfortunate; in trying to get across the dubious proposal that somehow the songs from Son of were inferior to what had come before, we get some of the Mouse footage of Harry recording the blackly humorous “I’d Rather Be Dead” with a room full of senior citizens chiming in on massed group vocals as Perry laments how Harry wouldn’t listen to him about how he should be striving to follow up the more commercial bent of the preceding record, which makes Harry, conducting the choir in a party hat and tuxedo, look like a real buffoon. There are varying accounts of how Harry came to lose his voice during the Pussy Cats sessions; the liner notes of one of the CD releases cite an episode where Harry caught cold while sleeping on the beach, another presented here is a drunken screaming match between Harry and John early in the sessions; not only is this version treated like gospel, but the connection is made to the subsequent decline in his career due to the alleged loss of his singing voice; sure, he lost some range but still turned in some beautiful vocal performances on later records. I didn’t appreciate fine albums like Sandman and …That’s the Way It Is being tarred with the same dismissive brush, based on what I considered a dubious preposition. I was also a little annoyed to see so much Drop His Mouse? footage being used while the Nilsson Schmilsson sessions are being discussed. In general, there’s a subtle slant of “Harry’s music after 1971 was disappointing”, which I of course vehemently disagree with.  All in all, though, other than Harry’s widow Una’s unblinking stare during her interview sessions (She seems like a wonderful person, but geez, I wanted to step into the screen and hand her some Visine!), that’s about all the nits I can pick.

So, if I’ve piqued your interest at all, go here to view this film until the 19th of August.  Perhaps it’s because I’m such a fanatic about the subject matter, but I think it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen and I was moved in ways I wasn’t expecting at all. I hope you like it half as much as I did!

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  • Matt

    An absolutely essential watch, without a doubt..

  • Old_Davy

    That was a wonderful film.  I knew that Lennon’s assassination devastated Nilsson, but I never realized to what extent.  The story that Jimmy Webb told about his last night with Harry is the most bittersweet thing I have ever seen on film.

  • Anonymous

    I watched it on Hulu last night, a fantastic movie.