“Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)”: Remembering Nilsson’s lasting legacy

By on June 15, 2015

Today’s the anniversary of Harry Nilsson’s birth — he was born Harry Edward Nilsson III on June 15, 1941, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY — and we’ve already told you about the contributions he made to the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, but now we’re taking a look back at Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), the long-awaited documentary film about one of the most enigmatic singer-songwriters of the 70s, released into theaters and made available on DVD in the fall of 2010.


“Who is Harry Nilsson?” features many great moments unseen by fans for many decades, and utilizes clips from a variety of incredible sources, including Nilsson himself — the producers were able to use Nilsson’s own words and voice from his unpublished oral autobiography.

Written, directed by co-produced by John Scheinfeld alongside celebrated Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker David Leaf, the rockumentary-style film Who Is Harry Nilsson? tells the story of Nilsson’s life and music, a tale which begins with often very sad reflections about his troubled family life and poverty, growing up in Brooklyn, New York. It ends with stories of his own troubled life on the West Coast, dealing with heartbreak, bankruptcy and his self-destructive drug use and alcoholism.


Early in the film we learn that Nilsson dropped out of high school and ran away to California during his teens, working at a bank while waiting for his big break, often dealing with fractured friendships and busted-up marriages (he was married three times), as his life continued to spiral downward. He died of a heart attack on January 15, 1994, at the age of 52.

Along the way, however, we see that the prodigiously talented Nilsson — who played both piano and guitar and was blessed with a preternaturally pure and sweet voice — did get a few breaks and went on to become an incredibly gifted songwriter with an ear for melodic tunes and clever, poignant lyrics.


Son of Schmilsson

“The Smothers Brothers Summer Show” (July 8, 1970)

“Playboy After Dark” (August 30, 1968)

“The Ghost & Mrs Muir”: The Music Maker (March 29, 1969)

After signing with RCA Records in 1966, Nilsson was able to enjoy a successful career and critical praise for his music — in addition to being awarded seventeen gold records, he won a Grammy award for best male contemporary vocal in 1969 for “Everybody’s Talkin,” and collected his second Grammy for best male pop vocal in 1972 for “Without You.” While he didn’t writer either of those tunes, his own songs were recorded by folks like Three Dog Night (“One”) and The Monkees (“Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song”).


At the very heart of the doc is the wall-to-wall use of Nilsson’s music, and the producers were luckily able to use more than sixty of Nilsson’s songs, some of them demo versions and rarely heard gems excavated from Sony’s musical vaults. A wonderful underscore was also culled from more than two dozen of Nilsson’s album tracks stripped of his lead vocals, showcasing that even without hearing Nilsson’s vocals the songs stand on their own as great productions in their own right.


During the mid-to-late sixties and early seventies, Nilsson was frequently praised in the press by the Beatles, who collectively recognized his many talents — when asked in 1968 to name what his favorite American rock group was, Paul McCartney answered “Nilsson,” which of course caused many of his fans to seek out his recordings, to find out what they were missing, only to find, of course, that Nilsson wasn’t exactly a “band.”


John Lennon and Ringo Starr, in particular, remained good friends with Nilsson for the rest of their lives. We often get to hear about that infamous event back in March 1974 when Nilsson and Lennon, after a night of drinking too many Brandy Alexanders, were tossed out of the Troubadour for heckling the Smothers Brothers and annoying the club’s staff.


There are also scenes culled from promotional films, music videos, home movies, segments from the unfinished documentary he made during the recording of Son of Schmilsson (“Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?”) and excerpts from Nilsson’s rare appearances, including his BBC specials, the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “Playboy After Dark,” and even an episode of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” a long forgotten TV sitcom. As Nilsson was notoriously insecure about performing live and didn’t particularly care to be on TV, and valued his privacy more than he sought out the spotlight of stardom, the inclusion of these rare clips is a special treat.


The documentary also features new and archive audio and film including interviews with a variety of interesting Nilsson friends, fans, associates and acolytes, including John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Micky Dolenz, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Ray Cooper, Al Kooper, the Smothers Brothers, producer Richard Perry and countless others.

Check out the clip above from Otto Preminger’s Skidoo, featuring a bit of the film’s ridiculously fun prison, acid sequence, with Jackie Gleason, Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford, Cesar Romero, Harry Nilsson, Richard Kiel, Austin Pendelton and others tripping on acid. Then there is a song by Harry Nilsson performed by dancing trashcans. Nilsson appears the film as one of the prison guards too.


There are some wonderful archived videos here.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.