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Singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson may be the most significant "forgotten" recording artist of the 1960s and '70s. A musical prodigy who had difficulty with relationships and his own success, the unpredictable Nilsson soared to celebrity status but shied away from performing in public.
John Scheinfeld's Who Is Harry Nilsson... (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? is a fascinating biographical document of a life filled with personal achievements and celebrity associations. Tapping a vast resource of photos, song recordings and film material, the show fashions an intimate portrait of this musical self-contradiction. A master entertainer, Nilsson feared audiences and avoided live performances. He was both tender and cruel in his personal relationships. He built his career on optimism and persistence, yet his success seemingly fed a powerful urge toward self-destruction. Director Scheinfeld presents us with testimony from people who knew Harry Nilsson well, along with the singer's own recollections recorded on audiotape.
Harry Nilsson's impressive song library provides an appropriate musical background for every step of the songwriter's life story. Cast out by relatives at age 15, Harry gravitates to Hollywood and works in a movie theater and a bank while trying to sell his songs. His catchy tunes attract the attention of songwriters and record producers, and he's soon writing music for The Monkees and working on albums of his distinctive work. Nilsson has a sweet voice with a range far beyond that of the average rock vocalist. He's also versatile, recording rock, country and novelty vocals with ease. His circle of influence grows with every contact he makes.
Harry competes for a place on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy and wins out over Bob Dylan. But his breakout hit from that movie, Everybody's Talkin' is actually written by somebody else. When Nilsson hits big as a vocalist, it's often with a song written by somebody else (Badfinger's "Without You"); his own chart-topping compositions are often covered by others (as with "One" by Three Dog Night).
Harry's dreams come true when both John Lennon and Paul McCartney call him to express their admiration for his songs; he started out as a rabid Beatles fan. Asked to name his favorite American musician, Lennon replied, "Nilsson". When pressed for his favorite musical group, he replied, "Nilsson".
The documentary's appeal is enhanced by enthusiastic interviews with top stars. Harry's songwriting contemporaries Brian Wilson, Al Kooper, Paul Williams and Jimmy Webb can't seem to say enough about him. We get a different story from one of Nilsson's first record producers, who remembers being dumped the moment his discovery made good. Producer Richard Perry remarks on the singer's growing lack of self-discipline after their award-winning album Nilsson Schmilsson. Refusing to take good advice, Harry's follow-up album was eccentric but sloppy. Harry insisted that the recording sessions be filmed, and some of the footage appears in Who Is Harry Nilsson for the first time.
Harry's career soon goes in several directions at once. He writes the story and the music for an animated TV special called The Point! For controlled TV appearances he lip-synchs to his songs, as can be seen in Hugh Hefner's "party" TV show. But he still refused to hold concerts or go on tour, a choice that probably prevented him from achieving greater fame. As unpredictable as ever, Harry defies commercial expectations and records an album of pop standards from an earlier generation.
Interviews with those close to the singer reveal a troubled private life. Having abandoned his first wife, Harry drifts away from a second to carouse with his friends. Some of Nilsson's sensitive early songs fixate on his abandonment by his own father, yet he also uses his music to vent his rage at loved ones. To express his anger after his second divorce, he records a profane song as a blunt personal insult. Nilsson's wild times in the early 1970s include a number of highly publicized drink and drug benders with John Lennon. Tom and Dick Smothers' comeback booking at the Troubadour is ruined when Lennon and Nilsson show up to heckle them from the audience. Nilsson would later continue the party life with Ringo Starr. As another songwriter remarks, Nilsson would rope his friends into joining in on these out-of-control parties and then somehow always manage to leave just before trouble broke out. If Harry Nilsson were active today, his bad-boy behavior could easily lead off every installment of Entertainment Tonight.
More than one of the interviewees believe that Harry harbored some kind of death wish, and purposely destroyed his voice with drink and cigarettes; we're told that he and John Lennon would hold screaming competitions. But it is at this time that Nilsson also meets his third wife, and settles into something resembling domesticity. Una Nilsson and her children describe Harry's devotion without trying to explain him. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980 Nilsson threw himself into anti-gun campaigns, and began to consider himself as semi-retired. He spent much of the 1980s working on music and movie projects that failed to come up to expectations, like Robert Altman's Popeye. Witness Robin Williams remembers Altman summoning Nilsson and his musicians to the Malta location, which became an endless party. The '80s ended in disaster for Harry, when his financial advisor embezzled almost all of his fortune.
With all of these stellar ups and downs Who Is Harry Nilsson has no difficulty holding our attention for a full two hours. A showcase for Harry's talents, the film allows us to appreciate both a minimalist gem like "Coconut" and his impressive vocal range on "Without You". When performance video and film records won't suffice, the show fills in with montages of animated stills. Some of this biographical background material over-uses flashy video transition effects, in an attempt to revisit the style of the 1960s. Faced with an extremely messy timeline of events -- so much appears to happen between 1968 and 1974 -- director Scheinfeld keeps everything very understandable. We finish the show with a much greater appreciation of Harry Nilsson, even if the truth about him seems more elusive than ever.
Lorber's DVD of Who Is Harry Nilsson... (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? is an acceptable transfer of this celebrity-driven documentary. The archive material sourced on film can look quite good, while some older TV show videotapes aren't as attractive. A strong audio mix makes the most of Nilsson's music catalog, which will probably receive a much-deserved boost in popularity. For extras, Lorber's disc offers almost a hundred minutes of deleted scenes plus a music video for the song "Loneliness".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.