“When you say the name Harry Nilsson people either get it right away or they have no idea.”
– Tommy Smothers
“I do believe that most men live lives of quiet desperation. For despair, optimism is the only practical solution. Hope is practical. Because eliminate that and it’s pretty scary. Hope at least gives you the option of living.”
– Harry Nilsson
Considered by many to be one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, Harry Nilsson became a popular, though somewhat lesser known performer during the sixties and seventies. He wrote songs for artists like Three Dog Night and the Monkees as well as recording what would become his own hits. He won a Grammy for “Everybody’s Talking,” a song for the movie Midnight Cowboy and for his unmatched vocal performance of the Badfinger song, “Without You.” Now, the filmmakers who created The U.S. vs. John Lennon are back with a documentary about Nilsson’s dramatic, conflicted life during the golden age of pop music.
Who is Harry Nilsson? Nilsson was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and lived his early life in extreme poverty after his father left his mother when he was 3 years old. At the age of 15 he was living with his aunt and uncle when they told him he had to go because they just couldn’t afford to feed him anymore. Nilsson left for Los Angeles and supported himself by lying about his age and pretending to have a high school diploma. After he took up an interest in songwriting, he worked to promote his songs during the day while working a computer job in a bank at night. He began writing songs for the Monkees, recorded his first album, and before he could say “fab,” the Beatles were announcing at a press conference that Nilsson was their favorite American performer. After that, Nilsson’s phone never stopped ringing. His star began to rise.
Why is everybody talking about him? Everybody, in this case, is Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Yoko Ono, Robin Williams, The Smothers Brothers, Van Dyke Parks, and other industry friends. These are the real narrators of Nilsson’s story, and their warm, sometimes hilarious yarns reveal the genuine respect and love his contemporaries felt for him. Nilsson was brilliant, complicated, and had a rebellious dark side. With a little help from friends like John Lennon and Keith Moon, he created the blueprint for real rock ’n’ roll excess, which eventually lead to his undoing.
Out of this chaos emerged the hugely successful album Nilsson Shmilsson. The record company expected a like product to follow, another hit maker. Instead, he recorded Son of Schmilsson, a quirky record full of strange and sometimes off-color songs that left the industry executives scratching their heads. Nilsson went on to record an album of Randy Newman covers (he was an avid fan) and an album of classic 20th-century American standards. As Mickey Dolenz says in the film, “Harry answered to no man.” He did as he pleased and had way too much fun while he did it.
Originally released in 2006, the film was rereleased in theaters in September, this time with additional footage of Nilsson and interviews with his wife and children. On Oct. 26, the film was released in a special DVD presentation featuring an extra hour of unreleased material.
Wildly entertaining and full of great music history nuggets, this DVD makes the perfect holiday gift for any music lover. Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? is an inspiring story of the charismatic personality behind the hit songs.
Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at www.mindtheimage.com