The life of Harry Nilsson chronicled on new DVD

Published November 12, 2010

In July 2007 I visited Los Angeles for the first time. Two days after arriving I was browsing through a listings magazine when I chanced upon an item informing me that, if I had known about it, I could have attended a screening of a film entitled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? I stifled a scream of frustration. For this was a film I had known about for quite some time, and I had also read on the Internet that the producers had a hard time finding a DVD distribution deal for the film. Thus, living in Stockhom, chances were slim that I'd ever get to see this film.

I have been a Harry Nilsson fan for many years. To me, he had one of the best voices in rock and he wrote some of the most amazing songs I've ever heard. His early albums are jaw-droppingly awesome and up to the early Seventies he did little wrong.

His career was kind of strange. Although he was an excellent song writer, his biggest hits - Everybody's Talkin' and Without You - were written by other people, while other acts achieved hits with songs written by him (Three Dog Night's version of One, for instance). Just a few years into his recording career, he recorded an entire album of songs by Randy Newman - Nilsson Sings Newman, actually one of his best albums - and in 1973, a couple of years after achieving a US number one with Without You, he chose to record an album of standards, A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. After that it was a downhill slide into alcoholism and drug abuse, and his career never regained its momentum.

The documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson? has now finally been released on DVD, and I spent the afternoon today watching it. With the help of family, friends and collaborators the film tells the full story of his life and career in a truly compelling way. It's an honest account of the good times as well as the bad, and clearly a labour of love on part of the film-makers.

I found it particularly interesting to see how the film acknowledged that what has sometimes been interpreted as self-deprecating humour was actually a matter of severe self-loathing. For me, the cracks were beginning to show as early as the 1971 Nilsson Schmilsson album (which featured the hits Without You and Coconut). Wonderful as it is, there is often something lazy and throwaway about it, so different from the meticulous care and energy that went into his earlier work. And on the following album, Son Of Schmilsson, it's quite clear that something's wrong: including a short reprise of the most beautiful song on the album, Remember (Christmas), and ending it with a loud burp, to me signals a serious lack of self-esteem rather than a sense of fun.

His best albums were made between 1967 and 1970: his voice was at its prime, he worked with a wonderful arranger - George Tipton - his vocal overdubs were inventive and adventurous, and most of the songs were outstanding. For the record, my favourite albums, as complete listening experiences are Harry (1969) and Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), but Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968) are also not to be missed. If you're a fan of melodic pop music, do yourself a favour and check out Harry Nilsson's recorded work. And if you're already a fan, make sure that you pick up a copy of the documentary - you won't regret it.

Click here to read a recent and very interesting interview with the film's writer-director, John Scheinfeld.