By Dirk Sonniksen | September 5, 2010
Director: John Scheinfeld
Writer(s): John Scheinfeld
Harry Nilsson is not a household name.
Originally released in 2006, Who is Harry Nilsson documents the rise and fall of a singer/songwriter who reached the apex of stardom in the 70s. While many aren’t familiar with Nilsson, his songwriting abilities are on display in hits recorded by other artists, such as Three Dog Night and The Monkeys. Nilsson himself found success singing “Without You” and “Coconut” as well as Fred Neil’s song for the film Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talking,” for which Nilsson would win an Oscar for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance.
Scheinfeld’s documentary does Nilsson justice, documenting his impact on the music industry and the influential power his work had on artists such as The Beatles. Harry would become an undeniable influence among many artists of his time, but with substance abuse issues looming large, Nilsson would ultimately pay a price that would have a spiraling effect on his career. We get the impression that Nilsson was a star that burned twice as bright but half as long; the documentary leaves one wondering what further impact Nilsson’s own particular genius could have had if his demons had not come to call.
Who is Harry Nilsson is heavy on interviews with those who knew Harry best. Speculation set aside, the interviews with his true friends and colleagues corroborate his abilities as a singer/songwriter and give a historical timeline to the unfortunate circumstances that would ultimately lead to his death. There is also a fair amount of footage of Nilsson performances and rare photos of Nilsson at work and at play. (There was a lot of play.)
Indeed, Nilsson’s nights (and days) of decadence would eventually become as well known as his latest hit song. His all night (or all week) festivities and his ability to keep the wives of friends in a frenzy are chronicled, and it becomes evident that Harry knew how to party. While we see a man losing ground to his vices, the portrayal of his tendency to over-indulge is balanced by some light-hearted memories, which help to keep the documentary from becoming a somber tale of loss.
A rare glimpse into the life of a particular individual can be a privilege of sorts, and indeed I felt that privilege when seeing his life unfold. A fan of all things musical, I was unfamiliar with Nilsson’s work, and found the documentary to be both informative and a bit of a music history lesson. Ultimately, Director John Scheinfeld took all of the elements of a good documentary and combined them into a cohesive bit of filmmaking; most will find Harry Nilsson a somewhat elusive character, but his story should capture your attention and keep you engaged.
Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? will be shown at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin on November 15. For other select showings around the United States, visit Lorber Films at http://www.lorberfilms.com/who-is-harry-nilsson/who-is-harry-nilsson/.