During vacations, my family mercilessly razzes me about my choice of film rentals. (“Oh No! Another… Dad film!?!?!”) So, unable to get anyone to join me in viewing Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? I watched it by myself.
If you’re my age, perhaps you can figure out that the subtitle is a play on his hit song from the film Midnight Cowboy. (Of course, when I attempted to use this angle to try to entice my kids into watching the film with me, they dismissively responded, “Who is the Midnight Cowboy?”)
Anyway, I suppose I rented the film because I’ve always linked Nilsson with Randy Newman, a musician in my personal top-5 pantheon. (Great 1970 album: Nilsson Sings Newman) Once the movie got underway, I was struck by just how many hit songs Nilsson had, songs like:
– “Coconut” (“Put de lime in de coconut, then you’ll feel better.”);
– “Jump Into the Fire” (Think: a wired and paranoid Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, manically gripping the wheel of a big ‘70s hunk of Detroit, convinced that the helicopter overhead is stalking him.);
– “Without You” (“I can’t live, if living is without you.”);
– “Me and My Arrow” (“Wherever we go, everyone knows, it’s me and my arrow.”);
– And of course, “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me (But I can’t hear a word their sayin’).”
Nilsson’s excesses resulted in a shortened body of work (25+- years) and an early death (early 50s) due to a massive heart attack in 1994, but he packed a lot of life into those years and it’s all here:
– the lost weekends and drunken collaborations with John Lennon;
– his friendship and recordings with Ringo Starr; (The Beatles often called him their favorite American musician. Indeed Beatlesque, his sound strikes me as a mix of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Newman.)
– Candid remembrances from people like Yoko Ono, Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Al Kooper, Robin Williams, and even Monkee Micky Dolenz;
– Personal anecdotes by wives and children.
Long before the credits roll, it’s clear that Harry Nilsson was a very talented musician who refused to be categorized and was way ahead of his time on many fronts. For example, while albums of traditional jazz standards are currently en vogue, Nilsson revolted against both his producer and record label back in 1973 to release the amazing A Little Touch of Schmilsson In the Night.
While that tidbit impresses neither my daughters nor their friends, I did manage to get them to give a listen to “You’re Breaking My Heart.” Since they’re currently enamored with Cee Lo Green’s invocation of the “F” word in his current catchy hit song, they were surprised to learn that Nilsson beat Cee Lo to that punch with a catchy tune of his own….. nearly 40 years ago.
After returning the film, I took a spin over to Bullmoose Music and scored copies of the above albums plus a used one of Nilsson Schmilsson. Harry Nilsson: Rent the film; Buy the music.
Onward, Malcolm Gauld