Everybody’s Talkin’ About Harry Nilsson
(Editor’s Note: Our L.A. correspondent Randy Fuller covered a screening of the new documentary about Harry Nilsson – here is his report.)
John Scheinfeld’s documentary, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), is currently getting a week’s screening in Los Angeles (through 9/23), with Portland (9/24 – 9/30) and San Francisco (10/1 – 10/7) to follow. It’s a gentle and powerful film examining the life of the singer/songwriter through his music and the words of the people who were close to him. Those whose comments tell the story of Harry Nilsson include Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb, Mickey Dolenz, Robin Williams, Eric Idle, Al Kooper, Randy Newman and a host of others.
Director Scheinfeld said after the film, in an in-person Q&A at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 theater, that his biggest disappointment about the film is that he could not persuade Ringo Starr to sit for an interview. Scheinfeld said “There are three people Ringo finds it very difficult to speak about: John Lennon, George Harrison and Harry Nilsson.”
The movie has just been released after a period of at least four years of being tinkered with. The final cut comes in just under two hours long, down from a previous version that clocked in at three hours. Scheinfeld mentioned that all that lost footage didn’t stay on the cutting room floor. “A DVD should be out by Christmas,” he said, “and there will be about another 90 minutes of footage – almost another whole movie – as part of the package.”
In the film, Parks and Dolenz have quite a few stories to tell about Nilsson’s legendary spiral into alcoholism and, ultimately, self destruction. One of Nilsson’s cousins who was close to him also gets a lot of face time and adds a more personal touch to the account.
Comments from Nilsson’s friends about how they never knew how many days they’d be gone when they agreed to get together with him made the crowd laugh, while accounts of ruined relationships with two of his producers – Rick Jarrard and Richard Perry – were sadly touching.
The film offers accounts from many acquaintances of how Nilsson and John Lennon terrorized the Los Angeles nightclub scene for a while. Tom and Dick Smothers talked about being heckled by the pair at the Troubadour. It seemed at least Dick was still having trouble finding the memory humorous.
All the boozing and drugs most assuredly took their toll on Nilsson’s once-beautiful voice, but the crushing blow, according to songwriter Jimmy Webb, was a friendly contest between Lennon and Nilsson to see which one of them could record the longest, loudest scream.
The movie chronicles Nilsson’s fascination with the Beatles and illustrates it with tales of how he would refer to himself as “the fifth Beatle.” Audio of John Lennon pronouncing at a Beatles press conference, “Nilsson is our favorite group,” resulted in the singer being thrown into the Beatles circle of fame. Those who knew him said sitting on that lofty perch changed Nilsson forever.
The film is highlighted by video from two BBC specials, a “Playboy After Dark” episode in which Nilsson performs, home movies and the 1974 film Son Of Dracula, which starred Nilsson and Ringo.
Speaking of the movies, it’s somewhat ironic that a man so known for his songwriting ability is probably best known for a song he didn’t write. “Everybody’s Talkin’” is a Fred Neil composition which was used in the movie Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson was one of several artists commissioned to create an actual title song for that film, but the filmmakers ultimately decided to stay with the Neil song. Nilsson’s “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” is the song he wrote for that project.
Scheinfeld spoke about the music in the documentary, which is all Harry Nilsson’s music. “We went to Sony and had instrumental remixes made from a number of Nilsson’s recordings to use underneath some of the footage,” he said. “We hope a soundtrack album will result from this project and that some of the remixed material can be on it.”
YouTube: Movie trailer for Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)
YouTube: Harry Nilsson on “The Smothers Brothers Show”