Now Playing: Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? | Bleader

Now Playing: Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?


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Tonight at 10 PM, Lincoln Hall will present the Chicago premiere of a fine documentary about singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, who burst into the mass consciousness with his rendition of "Everybody's Talkin'" on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy (1969) and went on to make a series of eclectic albums, most notably the multiple-Grammy-winner Nilsson Schmilsson (1971). My own enthusiasm for Nilsson centers mostly on his first two albums, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968), both made while he was an obscure darling of the Beatles (they named him as their "favorite American group") and was dishing out great numbers for Three Dog Night ("One") and the Monkees ("Cuddly Toy," "Daddy's Song"). Back then Nilsson had it all: good looks, a voice like honey, indelible melodies, penetrating lyrics. He was one of the most prodigiously talented artists in the music business, and the movie is a sad, careful measurement of how much that talent was squandered as the 60s wore on into the 70s.

Micky Dolenz of the Monkees is among those interviewed by video maker John Scheinfeld, and he probably sums up Nilsson the best: "He spent his life chasing a good time, and he caught it. And then it caught him." A legendary party animal in LA, Nilsson pulled everyone into his own personal craziness, and at least two recording sessions, for Pussycats (1974), produced by John Lennon, and Duit on Mon Dei (1975), were engulfed by drugs and lunacy. But whether at play or at work, Nilsson marched to his own drummer: he made flagrantly uncommercial career moves in pursuit of his art, like recording an entire album of songs by the relatively unknown Randy Newman (Nilsson Sings Newman, 1971) or an album of old pop standards (A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, 1981). He was also painfully shy and afraid to perform live, though Scheinfeld has rounded up a cornucopia of lip-synced TV performances, clips from the animated TV special made from his concept album The Point (1971), and footage from the inventive live concert Nilsson recorded for broadcast on the BBC.

Scheinfeld would have been better served with a stiff editor, but the interview material he's collected for this 116-minute video is funny and insightful. He talks to Nilsson's friends in the music world (Danny Hutton, Al Kooper, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Yoko Ono, Paul Williams, Brian Wilson), his movie collaborators (Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Robin Williams), and his closest family (his many children; his beloved fourth wife, Una; his cousin, Doug Hoefer). They tell a story of a loving, vibrant man so determined to have everything life could give him that he burned out his career by the early 80s and his body in January 1994, when he died of a heart attack at age 52. But his music still flames.