Who is Harry Nilsson? June 15, 2016
In which a film title poses a question that I cannot quickly answer, I’m intrigued. Perhaps it’s an embarrassment that I didn’t know who Harry Nilsson was until watching engrossing 2010 rock doc Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?; his songs have, unbeknownst to me, passed through my life on many occasions. I can instantaneously recognize his 1972 cult classic “Coconut,” which was a childhood favorite of mine (it was memorably covered by The Muppets), and I’m fond of his rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” whose delicate melody was easily the best thing about 1969’s iconic Midnight Cowboy. My knowledge is limited, sure, but I’m positive that I’m not the only person living who might be familiar with Nilsson’s musicianship but not necessarily with Nilsson himself.
So it’s a good thing that the documentary is a fine one. As is the case with almost all docs that find their interest in a forgotten figurine, we’re posed with a question that some works don’t always have the cohesiveness to answer: why should we care about ? Fortunately, the film, written and directed by John Scheinfeld, is investigative and sympathetic, analyzing its titular figure without romanticism while also scrutinizing the darker sides of celebrity. It’s a heady combo that doesn’t always go quite as deep as we’d like it to — Nilsson, who died in 1994, still comes across as a singing/songwriting legend by its end, never to turn into flesh and bone — but the film is cogent and heartfelt.
It’s the adoration in the eyes of those interviewed that gets to us the most. As Who is Harry Nilsson? travels through the highs and lows of its eponymous center, its talking heads (including Robin Williams, Paul Williams, Terry Gilliam, among others) speak of Nilsson as if he were one of the most important people to ever affect their lives; almost everyone involved seems to understand him, to love him for the flawed man that he was. The atmosphere is a sentimental one, and it makes for an appropriate countering to the gloomy nature of much of the film.
Nilsson was certainly a musical great — he was voted No. 62 in Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time" list — but his warm vocals and knowing presence was oftentimes supplemented by self-destruction. A victim of alcoholism and sporadic drug use, his abuses and his insecurities are touched upon in an unflinchingly honest fashion. His pitfalls are never understated. They’re amplified, and that’s the film’s biggest strength. Scheinfeld goes out of his way to paint a clear portrait of his subject, and such is not always an easy thing to do when admiration is part of the equation.
And admiration is a part of Who is Harry Nilsson?, but I like how well the movie at once worships Nilsson while still acknowledging his neuroses. The behind-the-music ambience of it all might have to do with the fact that Nilsson himself wasn’t alive during production (and because several crucial people in his life, including Ringo Starr and George Tipton, chose not to participate), but the film remains to be distinctly informative and distinctly commiserative. Everybody’s talking about Harry Nilsson because he was a genius as well as a multifaceted man — and there’s nothing forgettable about that. If only time weren’t such a cruel force. B