Doc of the Day: Who is Harry Nilsson... (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Who is Harry Nilsson… (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?

Posted in Days of Docs by - April 25, 2012

He’s the greatest musician you might not have heard of. This movie will fix that.

Dir. John Scheinfeld, 2010, 116 min

Before watching this documentary, the only thing that I knew about Harry Nilsson was that he wrote and sang that one song from Midnight Cowboy. It turns out that even the one thing that I thought I knew was wrong, since he didn’t write it at all, and was singing a cover. I can’t say with any authority how well-known Nilsson is, but he certainly never filtered through pop culture to me. And after watching Who is Harry Nilsson… (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, I’m kind of dumbfounded by that.

See, Nilsson didn’t just sing that song everyone remembers from Midnight Cowboy. He did Coconut, too (Remember? “She put the lime in the coconut?” Remember?!). He was a friend of all four Beatles and Keith Moon, and collaborated with them. His songs or his versions of songs have appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows. As the movie continued, I suffered a compounding sense of, “how on Earth have I not known anything about this man before?”

Nilsson was kind of an incredible singer. I’m not a music critic for a reason, but pressed to describe his voice and style, I’d say he has the voice of a folksy, all-American cherub. An interviewee in this doc calls him an “American Beatle” and that’s probably a better way to put it. He’s got a soulful, gentle, stirring sound, and demonstrates a wonderful versatility through the variety of his singles, with covers ranging from “One” to “As Time Goes By.” Oh, and he did a “fuck you” song almost forty years before Cee Lo did it, and did it better. This guy was good. To say it mildly.

This doc is half a biography and half a tribute to Nilsson. Dozens of those who knew him well show up to talk about him, and is a crowd that includes Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, The Smothers Brothers, Terry Gilliam, Paul Williams, Brian Wilson, and many, many more. I think their mere presence attests to the kind of creative life Nilsson led better than anything that they can say.

I enjoyed hearing about Nilsson’s creative history far more than his personal history. His life was far from boring, but the doc doesn’t distinguish between what we really need to know about him and what we don’t. Although learning about his romance with his third (and lasting) wife was genuinely affecting, mainly because their courtship was actually unique and interesting. But the movie is pushing the limits of the viewer’s patience at nearly two hours, and not all that’s in there really needs to be, well, in there.

Watching Who is Harry Nilsson was like stumbling upon a lost treasure. It most certainly won’t be as revelatory to someone who actually knows things about music. Since I’m now only a novice of Nilsson instead of an ignoramus, I can’t say how well the doc captured his spirit, but its atmosphere matches the mood of his songs rather well. If you are, like I was, genuinely asking who Harry Nilsson is, then you should definitely seek this out. If not? It’s still pretty good.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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