Harry Nilsson is one of the great two-tiered artists in American pop: a musician whose biggest hits are widely known and generally well-liked, but who’s even more adored by music buffs who’ve taken the time to dig deeper than “One,” “Coconut,” and Nilsson’s smash covers of “Without You” and “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Born into poverty, Nilsson developed a knack for entertaining himself and hustling to get by, and when he moved to Los Angeles in the late ’50s, he lied his way into a job at a bank at the same time that he was schlepping his songs around town. He didn’t carry himself like a rock star—he was gawky and nerdy, and as interested in creaky old pop songs as he was in the latest fads—but he had an unparalleled sense of melody and an effortlessly angelic voice. Plus he was an inveterate wise-ass, always sending up himself, the culture, and every notion of showbiz propriety. In an era of inventive, knowledgeable songwriters like Brian Wilson, John Lennon, Van Dyke Parks, and Randy Newman, Nilsson became the musician’s musician, admired for his crazy arrangements and his insistence on satisfying his own muse before making his record label happy. He was also everybody’s favorite drinking buddy, which was his ultimate undoing.
John Scheinfeld’s documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) isn’t as innovative as the man it’s about. Scheinfeld relies on talking heads, vintage performance clips, and Nilsson’s own audio diaries, and he assembles them into a too-neat rise-and-fall-and-redemption narrative that emphasizes what an out-of-control asshole the man became in the ’70s before illness, activism, and a more settled family life mellowed him. Judging by the interviews with people who knew Nilsson, he wasn’t such an easy man to pin down. And while the music industry may have been furious at Nilsson for making resolutely uncommercial albums after his multi-platinum 1971 LP Nilsson Schmilsson, those records are frequently brilliant and a document of a man on the edge. Still, there’s been so little written about Nilsson or archiving of his work that Who Is Harry Nilsson is a godsend just for bringing together so much rare footage. (The upcoming features-packed DVD should be even better.) If nothing else, Scheinfeld captures the essence of the Nilsson experience, and how, according to his attorney, “He would turn up at your door at 4 in the morning, and you knew that the next three days were going to be an adventure.”