Who is Harry Nilsson?

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Harry And JohnLennon
Harry And JohnLennon

From KCRW DJ Mario Cotto:

Although I’m not a praying man, this might be an argument for prayer.

About 2 weeks ago, I read a review in the NY Times of a Harry Nilsson documentary, and when I tried searching for LA showtimes…I couldn’t find any. The following Saturday night, during my show I played some Nilsson and on-air I called out into the vastness of space and time, “Please…if you are connected in any way to this documentary, bring it to Los Angeles! Pronto!”

The following Tuesday I got an email with an invite to a screening of “Who Is Harry Nilsson…(And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him)?” at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

The fantastic documentary is a biography, but as opposed to being told from an objective historical view, it is told by his closest friends and family in a remarkably intimate way that is very loving but equally candid and not rose-tinted.

Additionally, virtually every piece of music in the film in Nilsson’s, which paints an even clearer portrait of a bona-fide American original who is relatively unknown considering he was The Beatles’ “favorite band.”

After the film screening and  Q & A with The Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, I had a brief chat with the films director, John Scheinfeld:

Little Touch HeadshotIt’s a safe bet to say that lots of people have heard Harry Nilsson, but don’t know it is Nilsson.  He is a remarkable person to center a documentary around, but it hadn’t actually been done before and not. Why do you think that is?

First of all, Harry is something of a cult artist who was never as famous as some of his friends (John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Keith Moon, the Monty Pythons, etc.).  Second, he had a relatively short career (13 years) and died young, so, sadly, he’s been somewhat forgotten. The irony is that while his name may not be well-known today, his music remains every bit as vital and relevant as ever…which is why people know the music but not the man. We hope to remedy that with this film.

Do you remember the first time you heard a song and thought, “NILSSON!” and what was it?

I first encountered Harry’s music as a freshman at Oberlin College when I was doing a morning radio show. I was prowling through the record cabinet when the unusual cover of “Pandemonium Shadow Show” attracted my attention. I checked out the label and saw a track called “You Can’t Do That.” Probably a lousy version of a Beatles track I thought to myself as I popped the vinyl on the turntable in the Listening Room. It was Beatles alright, but it was Harry’s amazing and creative way to create a new composition out of Beatles’ song titles. The rest of the album was a fascinating and irresistible blend of musical styles that was all his own. I couldn’t help myself so, for the next few hours, I pulled every Harry album off the cabinet shelves, eagerly listened to them and was hooked.

Making a biographical documentary is a long, thoughtful and at times, I imagine, a painful process. Do you remember the moment in particular when you were inspired and decided to make this documentary?

Lee Blackman, Harry’s good friend and long-time attorney, had approached me and my fellow producer, David Leaf, about doing a documentary about Harry. Being a fan of Nilsson’s music I was intrigued, but I knew very few details about his life. So I went to the library and the more I read, the more convinced I became that Harry’s story was remarkable and had to be told. It has an unusual richness and texture — his career was as complex, exhilarating, maddening and inspiring as the man himself – and absolutely makes for a powerful and emotional film.  

Between the performance footage and people’s incredibly candid heartfelt interviews, you give us a solid portrait of the man. Did the people who knew him feel you “got him”?

The creative premise under which we began production was to only feature people who knew Harry – not critics, rock historians, or music journalists. Rather, we wanted to interview his friends, colleagues, peers and family members who had intimate knowledge of the man and his music and could speak with legitimacy and credibility. And as there is no narrator in the film, it is their voices that describe Harry and provide insight into his character and artistry. Therefore, it can’t help but be an accurate portrait. One thing that did strike me during the making of this film was that everyone who was talkin’ about Harry really and truly loved him. They loved him for what he was…and for what he wasn’t…and it is that love that prompted so many people to want to be in our film and it is evident in every word they speak.

His music and songwriting, although very catchy and accessible, was really complex. Considering kids like listening to songs about “humps and lady lumps,” do you think younger generations will be able to appreciate Nilsson’s genius and wit?

Harry never created music to fit contemporary trends. Therefore, it has an uncommon freshness and style that never dates. As a result, I certainly hope that people will appreciate his artistry and be talkin’ about him for generations to come. But even if they are not familiar with his work, all that they need to know is that Harry’s music mattered to so many legendary musicians (the Beatles, the Who, the Beach Boys and so many more). And if his inspired so many legendary artists, then it can also inspire them.

Are there any recent songwriters who you think have been able to continue doing the kind of work he was doing?

There are some awesome songwriters at work today whose unique views of the world make them special. That said, I’ve not come across any current artist that combines the same amazing diversity of subjects for their songwriting with the same wit and sophistication as did Harry (not to mention possessing such an extraordinary voice with which to sing them). Harry was one of a kind.

If you had to pick one song…no, that’s mean, TWO songs that exemplify Nilsson for you which ones would they be and why?

I would say “1941” because of its raw and powerful biographical emotion and “Blanket for a Sail” because of the unique world view and whimsy that’s embodied in so much of Harry’s work.

What are your plans for the film? How can folks check it out?

WHO IS HARRY NILSSON…? premiered in New York on 9/10. Box office was so strong that the theater extended our run for a second week. We opened in LA on Friday the 17th and the same thing happened here. Similar theaters in other markets are closely watching what happens on the coasts and we are hopeful that if enough people turn out to support this film it will have expanded theatrical life across the country.

In any event, the DVD will be out in time for Christmas with, I hasten to add, 90-plus minutes of bonus material – another whole movie’s worth. I set out to make a film that is as entertaining, dramatic, poignant and funny as any narrative feature film, not to mention one that would introduce the great music of Harry Nilsson to people of all ages. I think we’ve accomplished that goal and hope that people will discover the film for themselves.

Who Is Harry Nilsson…(and Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) is currently playing at the Laemmle Sunset 5 until tomorrow  then moves to the Laemmle Theater Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica for a one week run.