Nilsson came to prominence in the 60s as a singer-songwriter, and his first real success came after The Monkees recorded his song “Cuddly Toy.” As he started recording a series of albums (including Pandemonium Shadow Show, Harry & Nilsson Schmilsson) with songs featuring witty & incisive lyrics, hummable melodies and beautiful production, fellow artists like The Beatles took notice. In fact, when asked in a late 60s interview who their favorite American group or artist was, John & Paul both responded “Nilsson.” That mutual respect (Nilsson was a huge Beatles fan and covered several of their songs) grew into a strong friendship with the Fab Four, especially John & Ringo, which is discussed in the film. Interviews with family members, as well as other famous friends like Yoko Ono, Micky Dolenz, Eric Idle, Randy Newman and others sketch a thorough, loving, but honest & realistic portrait of Nilsson.
Producer Richard Perry, who worked with Nilsson on several of his most successful records, talks about his great talent, his perfectionism & his complicated personality. One of the best stories Perry tells is how the hit song “Coconut,” was recorded using different voices for the various characters. Nilsson could often be his own worst enemy, and sometimes sabotaged his own success. But he also did things that later became trends in the business. Well before rock stars sang pop standards on a regular basis, Nilsson recorded an entire album of them entitled A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973). He also released a well-regarded album of compositions by fellow singer-songwriter Randy Newman, Nilsson Sings Newman.
Another interesting point made in the film is that Nilsson never toured or performed live concerts during his most successful years, but still managed to have best selling albums & hit singles. He even recorded a BBC “live” concert special that had no real audience! The movie also highlights some of the other projects Nilsson worked on, including the acclaimed 1971 animated film The Point, featuring a story & songs by Nilsson including “Me & My Arrow,” the critically lambasted and little seen 1974 rock musical Son of Dracula (which featured Ringo) and his work on the songs for the Robert Altman film Popeye (1980), which is discussed by Robin Williams, one of the stars of that film.
Also covered are the darker periods of Nilsson’s life, when drinking & drug use took its toll on him, professionally & personally. His partying took on legendary proportions, including his part in John Lennon’s famous “Lost Weekend” in LA. The interviewees don’t flinch in their honesty about this aspect of his life, but through it all their love & respect for the man still comes through. While this period was perhaps his most self-destructive phase, Nilsson managed to get healthy and enjoyed renewed happiness with third wife Una and their children. After Lennon’s death in 1980, Nilsson spent the later part of his life advocating gun control, and was very active in lobbying for better handgun laws, even appearing at Beatlefest conventions to raise money for the Coaliton to Stop Gun Violence. He started recording & performing again and began working on some new projects. Sadly, Harry died of heart failure in January 1994.
The film (written & directed by John Scheinfeld) is a comprehensive portrait of this complex, talented man. One of the observations made by Yoko is that Harry's younger years echoed Lennon’s in many ways, and this informed the way both men viewed the world, and how they lived. Though the portions of the film covering Nilsson’s later life are sketchier, there are many wonderful performance clips & in-studio footage from almost every phase of his career. The stories and music alone make the film worth seeing. The film is available on DVD and for digital download & viewing. The DVD features extended interviews and additional performance footage. If you are a fan of his music or the songs & artists of the 60s & 70s, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) is well worth your time.