According to Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers, his name causes one of two reactions in rock fans: instant recognition or a blank stare. John Lennon called him ”my favorite group,” perhaps because the artist in question was a genius when it came to double-, triple-, and quadruple-tracking his own voice (one critic wondered in print why he didn’t give more credit to his wonderful backup singers). He was the Howard Hughes of rock royalty, refusing to tour or even perform live; his ex-wife Diane called him ”the most insecure person I’ve ever known.” A-list producer Richard Perry said he had a death wish. Songwriter Paul Williams called him ”a big bunny with really sharp teeth.”
They’re all talkin’ about Harry Nilsson, the subject of John Scheinfeld’s (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) sadly lyrical new film, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?). If you see one rock doc this year (this one is due on DVD Oct. 26), make it Harry Nilsson. Screened as a ”work in progress” in 2006 at ”selected locations” — translation: hardly at all — it’s been held hostage until now by music-rights issues. Given Nilsson’s unpleasant decline and premature death, this could have been the stuff of a VH1 Behind the Music episode, but Scheinfeld has produced something better. Lots better. Close to genius, in fact.
Nilsson was born in 1941; his father walked out three years later, leaving young Harry in the care of an alcoholic mother. They lived in a section of Brooklyn where signs posted in the alleyways read STARVE A RAT — COVER YOUR GARBAGE. In his midteens, the kid who would one day win a Grammy for his version of Fred Neil’s ”Everybody’s Talkin”’ (made famous in Midnight Cowboy) purportedly held up a liquor store to pay the rent.
Here’s a story we all know. Our hero scuffles. He moves to the West Coast to seek his fortune. He works low-paying jobs — assistant theater manager, bank employee. He has a little songwriting success (the Monkees covered his song ”Cuddly Toy” in 1967), then achieves breakthrough solo success with hits like ”Everybody’s Talkin”’ and ”Coconut.” He makes famous friends like Ringo Starr, Terry Gilliam, and Robin Williams. Then alcoholism creeps up behind him. First it kisses him on the neck, then it grabs him in a choke hold. A heavy smoker, he blows his voice mostly because he screams his lungs out with John Lennon while making a totally forgettable album called Pussy Cats. (At the end of the session, according to one of the film’s many raconteurs, ”there was blood on the microphone.”) Financial ruin follows, as night follows day. In the end our hero dies of heart failure at the ridiculously young age of 52. At the funeral, George Harrison leads the mourners in one of the artist’s more scrofulous refrains: ”You’re breaking my heart/You’re tearing it apart/So f— you.”
We know the tale, but it’s rarely been told with so much heart, or about a singer with such an angelic voice. There’s probably not enough music — we’re given only snippets of classics like ”Coconut” (”You put the lime in the coconut, drink ’em both togedda”), ”Jump Into the Fire,” ”Me and My Arrow,” and the heartbreakingly beautiful sob-rock anthem ”Without You.” But this isn’t really a movie about music, although the way Scheinfeld establishes Nilsson’s voice as a beautiful instrument is important (my old bandmate Al Kooper calls A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night ”one of the greatest make-out albums ever made”). This is a brutal but loving story about the cannibal picnic we Americans call fame. What hits with the most force are the stills, which depict Nilsson’s transformation from a slim towheaded choirboy to a choleric overweight man who was reduced to hawking timeless songs as commercial jingles to anyone who’d buy them. The Nilsson who had his breakthrough success in 1969 became a doughy used-to-be 20 years later, remembered mostly by people who listen to oldies stations.
It’s as sad as the heartbreaks Nilsson sang about with the most conviction. Who Is Harry Nilsson is some piece of work, an exploration of the dark side of success that’s hard to watch, and even harder to forget.