Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dreams Are Nothing More Than Wishes: Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?

There couldn't be a more apt title for John Scheinfeld’s engaging documentary on the late singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson than Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? Despite the fact that Nilsson was both a prolific pop songwriter and a gifted tenor, perhaps what made Nilsson less than a household name was that he didn't comfortably fit into the niche of a traditional pop crooner. It also took Scheinfeld almost four years to get a distributor for his movie about him. But it’s definitely worth the wait.

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? examines with both insight and empathy the life of a pop artist whose pining voice cast a larger shadow on a tragic life. While he wrote songs that became hits for The Monkees (“Cuddly Toy”), Three Dog Night (“One”) and Blood, Sweat and Tears (“Without Her”), his only chart successes were other people’s tunes. “Everybody’s Talkin’” (made famous in Midnight Cowboy) was written by Fred Neil, while the Grammy-winning “Without You” was originally a track by the British rock group Badfinger. Nilsson never performed concert tours to promote his albums and his studio work itself became unique in that he did all his own overdubbed harmony vocals. With the help of top-notch players (from Little Feat’s Lowell George to keyboardist Nicky Hopkins), Nilsson became an insulated pop force, someone hidden away in the imagined world of a recording studio. From there, his lovely and quirky ballads and anthems could bring a youthful longing to unrequited wishes.

But, out in the world, he was on a destructive tear through nights of drunken escapades. Those endless nights would ultimately tear apart his greatest gift: his voice. By the time he died of a stroke in his fifties in January 1994, Nilsson barely registered in anyone’s consciousness. He had become a vague remembrance at best. If anything, pop music fans recalled his memorable evening in 1974 when he and John Lennon got tossed out of a nightclub after getting violently drunk and heckling the Smothers Brothers. Nilsson was more notorious as the lush who contributed to Lennon’s Lost Weekend than the talented vocalist who illustrated both a childlike innocence and a street-smart parodist. The Beatles connection loomed large in Nilsson’s early success, however, when they called Nilsson their “favourite American group” upon hearing his second album, Aerial Ballet (1968). Thanks to their valuable praise, Nilsson started to achieve some modicum of commercial recognition.

Scheinfeld tells the story of the rise and fall of this paradoxical figure in a traditional documentary style, but the arc of the story (with its tragic implications) isn’t morose. Quite the contrary, using audio tracks Nilsson recorded before his death to create notes for a possible memoir and interviews with associates and producers (including hilarious comments from Terry Gilliam, where Nilsson’s last songs were included in The Fisher King, producer Richard Perry, singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks, Mickey Dolenz (of The Monkees), plus Nilsson's widow Una), Scheinfeld allows a sympathetic portrait to emerge of an artist whose failings did not destroy those who continued to love him. But Who is Harry Nilsson? also does full justice to his music. The film illuminates the unpredictable arc of a career of commercial pop that didn’t follow conventional pop rules. As far back as his debut album, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967), with the opening track “1941,” Nilsson defied convention. In this autobiographical song about a father who leaves his son, the son runs away to join a circus, gets married, has a child and ends up committing the same sins as his father. The sadness in the song is submerged in a carnival melody that carries with it the faint reverberation of a childhood lost. Innocence is not only irreclaimable here, it can never be recovered. The wistful mood cast over “1941” saves it from becoming as treacly and self-conscious as Harry Chapin’s comparable “Cats in the Cradle.”

Who is Harry Nilsson? brings to our awareness a performer with a wide range of talents. He could create an intimately funny and moving chamber work with Randy Newman (Nilsson Sings Newman), write a children’s musical fairy tale that became a popular animated film (The Point), record the first - and arguably best - standards album (A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night from 1973) which used compositions from the American songbook to create a song cycle that told a story of a love affair found, lost, and then recovered. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ to Him)? is a compassionately funny portrait of a complex artist and man whose dreams were ultimately fulfilled even if his wishes couldn’t sustain him.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. An interview with Kevin about Film Noir can be heard on CBC Radio's Fresh Air. An article in the Torontoist on the Noir series by John Semley is here. NOW Magazine's film critic Norman Wilner highlights Roads to Perdition here.

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