Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everyone Talking About Him)
Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everyone Talking About Him) has to be one of the best titles for a documentary I can think of, speaking on the fact that nobody knows who he is and the title playing on his biggest hit, Midnight Cowboy’s title sequence track “Everybody’s Talkin”. The documentary covers the life and trials of Harry Nilsson, one of the greatest American singer/songwriters of all time and famously Lennon’s favorite musician, who we have highlighted on two top ten lists. The Brooklyn-born singer/songwriter had a tragic and tragically underappreciated career, so it’s great to see a documentary completely devoted to gushing about Harry Nilsson. While I love that this exists, it’s a pretty bland documentary that plays more like a Behind the Music than something that deserves to be a free standing documentary.
The documentary spends the majority of its two hour running time gushing over Harry’s talents, and while it’s fun hearing the likes of Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, and Paul Williams talking about how special Harry was, that doesn’t work as the primary driving force for a documentary. While this is fine, it only gets so far, and the best is when they get into the psychology and troubled life of Nilsson, which better explains why he never blossomed into a star like he could have and why he spiraled out of control. Nilsson had a childhood not too different from John Lennon’s, one of abject poverty and he was raised by his mother. Nilsson would find out later that his Dad, who he figured was dead, was actually remarried and living peacefully with his new family. This along with other heartbreaks in his life, led Harry to be incredibly insecure, never touring, but sticking almost completely to the studio. Harry refused to open up about his feelings and troubled past, and instead drown them with drugs and alcohol. His ultimate demise is heartbreaking, to see someone so talented ignore his problems and destroy his life.
Nilsson went on to make numerous hits, both for other artists like the Monkees (“Cuddly Toy”) and Three Dog Night (“One (Is the Loneliest Number)”) and for himself with songs like “Coconut” and “Without You”. Nilsson also became known for his immaculate covers, from his Randy Newman covers record to the Fred Neil cover “Everybody’s Talkin”. Harry had a quality to his voice that is sweet-natured, quirky and full of life. The documentary does a good job of highlighting Harry’s career highlights, but it lacks a really propulsive narrative but just kind of goes from moment to moment.
The prized gem is the recorded diary from Harry himself, which plays throughout the documentary. However, Who Is Harry Nilsson? still lacks much in the way of structure and is mostly just commentary from people close to him. The documentary even feels low budget, with a lack of real editing skills and a lack of consistency with the quality and cinematography. This feels like a missed opportunity since I think if it was done better, this could be a classic rock doc.
To its credit, the documentary does capture his strange oddball personality, which reminds me a lot of a more demented version of the Beatles silly side. So while it was great to see the attention paid to Harry and the pedigree of people they corralled for the documentary, with a little more TLC, this could be an incredible film. Still, it’s worth watching for real music buffs or fans of Harry Nilsson, and can be found on Netflix to catch whenever.