Harry Nilsson

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Last Friday, the documentary, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him) opened in LA at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

poster.jpgFor those who may not know, Harry Nilsson was an interesting singer/songwriter from the 1960's and 70's. His work was diverse. He could blindsided you like he did with the opening line to "One", a song later made famous by Three Dog Night; "One Is the Loneliness Number That You'll Ever Do". Three Dog Night took his song to Number 5 on the charts. Or the song "Without You." The words are "I can't live, if living means without you…' It's a brutal anthem of co-dependent love.

Or Harry could play the fool and write songs that charmed the world; "Put the Lime in the Coconut and Drink It All Up." He wrote that entire song using only one chord.

Harry also loved others songs. His version of the Fred Neil song, "Everybody's Talkin'" earned him a Grammy and a Number 2 single. The song had been included in Academy Award winning film Midnight Cowboy, where it received wide attention. He covered many other genius songwriters, putting his own writing career on hold. In fact, his genius was his beautiful three-octave voice.

The genesis of creativity is rarely built on a bed of roses and Harry's early life was no different. His childhood read like a Dickens novel. He was abandoned by his father at age four. His mother struggled to work and feed a household of kids while being an alcoholic. Harry was no stranger to the intimate side of poverty. He robbed a liquor store and ate dog food to survive. At the age of 15, when he lost a neighborhood job, his uncle said, "I don't think we can afford you anymore." Harry left home.

Perhaps because of that poverty, Harry went to work at a bank. By 18, he was a supervisor, overseeing millions of dollars in transactions every day. These stark extremes were the building blocks of his creativity and they no doubt forged his drive for success.

He began songwriting during the day, working the swing shift of the bank at night. Harry was tenacious and talented. Making a deal with publishers, many of his compositions became TV theme songs and commercials. It was a great way to make money, but Harry was not satisfied. He wanted more.

And he got more. The Beatles publicist, Derek Taylor heard Harry's music and forwarded it to the band. Members called him individually to express their admiration. The Beatles were the greatest band in the world, and he felt like the fifth member. An important bond was built with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, each of whom would collaborate with Harry in many future endeavors. Harry's life was now beyond his wildest dreams.

But like a Greek tragedy, Harry's luck would not persevere. His rock-and-roll lifestyle caught up with him. The film is a heartbreaking view of the magic that becomes the poison. It brilliantly portrays not only the Harry Nilsson that craved recognition, but also the one that destroyed much of the success he earned.

It's not often that a director can reveal both the beauty of creation, and the forces that set off to destroy it. Director John Scheinfeld has done an admirable job of presenting the man, his loves and his downfalls. Great art takes you on a journey and this film is no exception. See it on the big screen while you can.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.