Engaging documentary shines bright light on a legendary singer/songwriter.
Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) is just about the best possible movie that could be made about the singer/songwriter and a shining example of a biopic documentary done right. Written and directed by John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) back in 2006, the film has been held up due to music rights clearance issues for the last several years. Now, in a blessing for music and film fans everywhere, the clearance issues have been handled and Who is Harry Nilsson enjoyed a limited theatrical run in September and will finally be released on DVD later this month.
Using a combination of archival footage, exhaustive interviews with friends and colleagues and a recorded oral history from Nilsson himself, the film tells a rather complete story about the tumultuous life of one of the best musicians of the 20th century.
While at one point in time Harry Nilsson was a commercially and critically successful musician, his library of songs have somewhat slipped in obscurity over the years. His most well known songs are “Without You,” “Coconut” and “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a song Nilsson did not actually write. On the other hand, Nilsson did write the songs “One” and “Cuddly Toy” — songs that found success performed by Three Dog Night and The Monkees respectively.
The story of Nilsson’s life is told beautifully through a harmonic partnership between word and music. Using Nilsson’s songs as a form of recorded history, Scheinfeld let’s Nilsson’s frequently biographical lyrics fill in the holes not told through interviews with contemporaries such as Micky Dolenz, Danny Hutton, Randy Newman and Yoko Ono.
The movie follows Nilsson’s unassuming start in the music industry as a songwriter paid fifty bucks a week. The film follows Nilsson as he records his first album which caught the attention of The Beatles. It eventually brought the musicians into a friendship that would lead to the five influencing each other throughout most of their careers.
The movie captures Nilsson’s life through the ups and downs. After being nominated for nearly every Grammy possible for the song “Without You,” Nilsson nearly self-destructed his career by indulging in excessive drinking, smoking and partying while continuously making career choices that seemed, at the time, designed to ruin his fledgling success.
Especially fascinating were the stories of the warpath Nilsson and John Lennon would embark on whenever the two got in trouble. Vintage interviews with Lennon intercut with fresh accounts from the Smothers Brothers of a concert hall scuffle that broke out when Nilsson and Lennon decided to heckle the Smothers’ comeback show.
If you are not already a fan of Nilsson’s smooth-voiced pop-rock ballads, you will be by the end of the movie. Over thirty songs from Nilsson’s library are sprinkled throughout the film in everything from audio recording to vintage television appearances to even scenes from the “lost” 1974 musical comedy produced by Nilsson and Ringo Starr, Son of Dracula.
The film features one of the widest collections of clips and archival footage I’ve ever seen in a documentary of this nature but Who is Harry Nilsson is anything but a clip show. Scheinfeld perfectly lays out the story of Nilsson’s life through the mouths of an amazing who’s who list of interviewees. Almost anybody who had any part in Nilsson’s life is talked to and each offers his or her own personal story of Nilsson.
Some are joyful tales of Nilsson enjoying the trappings of his success — like Robin Williams explaining how a typical night out with Nilsson unfold — to some truly touching stories of Nilsson’s faults as a man — like his son from his second of three marriages talking about how his relationship with his father eerily echoed the relationship Nilsson himself sung about his own father in the song “1941.”
Whether you are already a fan of Harry Nilsson or you find yourself asking why everybody is, in fact, talking about him, checking out this great film is a must. Far from a puff piece, Who is Harry Nilsson takes a long, hard look at a man who was always just out of reach of total success and happiness. Briskly paced and with a great soundtrack, there’s little missing from this entertaining documentary.
Director: John Scheinfeld Notable Cast: Micky Dolenz, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Ringo Starr, Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, Richard Perry, Randy Newman, John Lennon, Brian Wilson Writer: John Scheinfeld
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.