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Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (DVD Review)

15 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
Box Office $0.03 million
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.

Several talkin’ heads here make reference to a still underrated singer/songwriter’s intolerance of fools and his ability to be an occasional s.o.b. Others recall those dreaded telephone calls when he’d call up to “play” — which meant that you (to say nothing of your fearful spouse) suddenly knew you were going to end up in some strange city three days later not knowing where you were.

Yet overall, John Scheinfeld’s lovely documentary oozes major affection from everyone interviewed, all of whom (including record producer Richard Perry; ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz; songwriter Jimmy Webb, to name just three) come off as people you might want to have as next-door neighbors.

Nilsson got to be a close friend and professional associate of John Lennon; in fact, Yoko Ono is among Talkin’s interviewees, while writer/director Scheinfeld previously did The U.S. vs. John Lennon, the documentary that proved that the former Beatle and the Nixon Administration did not have instant karma. Someone notes that comparable upbringings might have contributed to the Nilsson-Lennon camaraderie, and anyone who’s seen the recent theatrical release Nowhere Boy (a fictional film about Lennon’s formative years) will likely sense the link. Nilsson was abandoned by his father, had a drinking mother and was raised more or less by Brooklyn relatives until he was told (in adolescence) that they just couldn’t afford him anymore. At one point, says one interviewee, he held up a liquor store for rent money (he got $17).

This had a way of making Nilsson generous, post-success, to people he didn’t even know. It also made him prize family above all else, at least once his apparently dream third marriage to the younger woman he fell for — on first sight in an ice cream shop — produced six children in fairly short succession. But it also made him a go-it-alone type disinclined to take anyone’s advice. With a telling mix of affection and exasperation, Nilsson Schmilsson producer Perry recalls his own gargantuan efforts to keep the train on the track in efforts to turn that 1971 album into a classic it remains. Whereupon, Nilsson stopped listening or at least elected to flex some muscles. This contributed to follow-up Son of Schmilsson falling significantly short artistically — precisely at a point when the artist most needed to capitalize on success.

Given the alarming number of existing photographs that picture Nilsson smoking and drinking, it’s easy to deduce a couple major contributors to his artistic decline (and the decline of his voice, which had a multi-octave range). Though it certainly wasn’t at the time, one of the documentary’s highlights is a recollection by the Smothers Brothers, whose “comeback” at L.A.’s Troubadour (following their CBS canning) got ruined when Lennon and Nilsson and drunkenly heckled them from a table, an abysmal idea that got the two patrons some understandably terrible press. At his peak, however, not a few thought Nilsson had the single best singing voice around, and Lennon called him his “favorite group.” In later years, he did learn to play around with his limitations (Nilsson’s last released vocal was for the soundtrack of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King), a little like the way Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday learned to when their own natural tools declined.

Talkin’ runs just under two hours but moves at a motor-mouthed pace, with an added 90 minutes of supplementary materials (Nilsson’s widow and now grown children are outstanding) that engage as much as the main body. The documentary points out, as any good one would, that while “Everybody’s Talkin’” from Midnight Cowboy may have been Nilsson’s most famous recording, it was one of his rare hits that he didn’t write. (A nice impromptu public tribute to Nilsson by Cowboy star Dustin Hoffman opens the film.) On the other hand, he did compose One, which also became a huge hit — though not by him but Three Dog Night.

Copious TV and recorded clips (not from tours because Nilsson wouldn’t ever go on the road) prove that he also borrowed from the best. One hilarious excerpt of three apes performing “Coconut” looks like a reunion concert for Ernie Kovacs’ “Nairobi Trio.” And there’s another one in which primitive effects enable “three” Nilssons to sing as a trio before a fourth (in the audience) applauds. Oscar Levant did something a lot like this in Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-winning An American in Paris.

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