Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talking 'Bout Him?)

Who Is Harry Nilsson is a brilliant documentary that explores why the gifted singer/songwriter self-destructed in a most gaudy way.

I knew about Harry Nilsson's work a bit before he became famous with the movie theme for Midnight Cowboy, "Everybody's Talkin' at Me," a song, ironically, he did not write.

Before I saw this documentary, I could name three or four hits Harry had. However, I had forgotten or simply did not know the breadth and depth of his song resume. The documentary very nicely shows in chronological order, by album recording, how each happened. And the struggles that ensued every time.

Record producers who were involved in Nilsson's projects recognized that a strong hand was needed, or Harry would run amok. And one even insisted it be in the contract. The result was the beautiful Nilsson Schmilsson. But after that, including its follow-up, The Son of Schmilsson, was filled with bad choices.

The documentary takes pains to interview such luminaries as Randy Newman, Yoko Ono, Robin Williams, the Smothers Brothers, and Micky Dolenz, as well as some of Harry's wives. These interviews shine a bright light on an increasingly miserable existence, and Harry's friendship with John Lennon seemed to be the pinnacle of uncontrolled wildness, something only great money, celebrity friendships, and copious amounts of drugs and alcohol can produce.

I thought it odd and sad that Harry longed for a father that was never in his life, and yet left his children from a former wife just as quickly. In the end, I didn't even recognize the face of this man who had produced so much. He died of a massive heart attack after finally finding a happy marriage and after raising his family out of bankruptcy.

The film is an incredible look into a life headed up and then crash-and-burn down. Thumb's up.


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