On Demand Weekly provides new movie reviews of hot movies on demand from the POV of watching from the comfort of your home. Today’s review: WHO IS HARRY NILSSON? (AND WHY IS EVERYBODY TALKIN’ ABOUT HIM) - FilmBuff.
WHO IS HARRY NILSSON? We'll Tell Ya
By Anita Serwacki
Mention the songs “Coconut,” “Without You,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” or “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” and there’s a pretty good chance most anyone could hum a few bars. But mention the name Harry Nilsson and you’re bound to get one of two divergent reactions: gushing reverence or more often a blank stare.
A musical genius’ musical genius - venerated by the likes of John Lennon, Brian Wilson and Randy Newman - Harry Nilsson was a 1970s pop music powerhouse with legendary songwriting talent and vocal gifts. But his avoidance of public performance and penchant for self-destruction, along with his staunch refusal to be artistically pigeonholed, left him with a brief career and without the popular name recognition enjoyed by those he influenced.
Nilsson’s story covers familiar territory – a hardscrabble youth overcome by immense talent, a meteoric rise in the music business sabotaged by a love affair with pills and the bottle, and ultimately a career decline and untimely death. But his colorful associations and the exceptional details of Harry’s life set him far apart from your average “Behind the Music” subject. Not just anyone has The Mamas & The Papas’ Cass Elliot AND The Who’s Keith Moon die in his apartment.
Director John Schienfeld (THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON) weaves a vast collection of photos, home movies, archival footage, Harry’s audio diaries and on-camera interviews with a star-studded cast of characters who’d been drawn into Nilsson’s wake (including Monty Python’s Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, Robin Williams, Yoko Ono and Jimmy Webb), creating a rich portrait of this largely forgotten, angel-voiced enfant terrible, with a soundtrack featuring dozens of recordings from throughout his career.
Working at a bank by day and writing songs at night, Nilsson’s first major break came when The Monkees recorded his tune “Cuddly Toy,” allowing him to focus on music full time. When The Beatles proclaimed Nilsson to be their “favorite group,” his career sky-rocketed, leading to his Grammy-win for “Everybody’s Talkin’” from the MIDNIGHT COWBOY soundtrack, the production of his own ABC animated special “The Point,” and release of the seminal album “Nilsson Schmilsson.”
But Harry Nilsson was not one to take success well at all, and this meteoric rise quickly gave way to a downward spiral that involved butting heads with and defying the guidance of collaborators who helped him along the way. Against all common wisdom, he soon recorded an album of standards titled “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night,” which producer Al Kooper recalls was “one of the greatest make out albums ever made.” It was pretty much his last major hurrah; after that point in the story our Nilsson appears increasingly more shaggy, sweaty and bloated.
As is often the case with great talents, Nilsson personal life was a rocky one. Two failed marriages led to a third that finally stuck. The tale of his courtship of the beguiling 19 year-old Irish girl, Una, who he met at an ice cream parlor, is charming and sweet. While his children from that marriage gush about a wonderful, involved father, the strained recollections of the son from his second marriage border on heartbreaking.
Though he burned many bridges over the years, Harry maintained close relationships with Ringo Starr (who unfortunately was not interviewed for the film) and John Lennon, though the latter tended to veer toward the mutually destructive. Nilsson’s penchant for self-sabotage and his careless disregard for his gifts are perfectly illustrated in a story about how he destroyed his vocal chords after he and John got into a “screaming contest.” Lennon’s death shook Nilsson so deeply that he struggled against his aversion to public appearances and launched himself into a campaign for gun control.
For those who may only be familiar with his hits but know nothing of the man and his larger body of work, WHO IS HARRY NILSSON? is an engaging and emotional primer on one of pop music’s greatest singer/songwriters. Those who already regard him as an icon will spend two hours in music heaven and come away with a deeper appreciation and a few new trivia nuggets that are sure to up their Nilsson Nerd credentials, such as when Harry details how a telephone busy signal was the genesis of “One (Is The Loneliest Number)”.
Get to know Harry Nilsson on demand now!
Anita Serwacki held executive positions at October Films, Focus Features and Sundance Channel. She has co-authored several humor books including The New Vampire’s Handbook, written for the PBS animated series WordGirl and is currently a contributing writer for The Onion.
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