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‘Who Is Harry Nilsson?’ Poet, provocateur, master

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Video Credit: YouTube
Video Credit: YouTube
Video Credit: YouTube
Video Credit: YouTube

It’s wildly thrilling, as we approach John Lennon’s 70th birthday and its deserved hoopla, that one of pop music’s lesser-known lights is flickering on movie screens across the world: The remastered “Who Is Harry Nilsson?” tells the tale of a man the Beatles — as a group — dubbed one of the most talented American songwriters ever.


The guest list for this rockumentary is impressive in itself: Micky Dolenz, Terry Gilliam & Eric Idle, Al Kooper, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb, the Williamses — Paul and Robin — Brian Wilson, and, of course, Ringo, John & Yoko.

None can outshine the Bushwick-born star, though. And if you didn’t know Harry Edward Nilsson III… well… here’s your chance to discover a treasure that might otherwise have eluded you.

The film originally was released four years ago. But newly discovered rare footage, along with some additional interviews and photos make the revised version far more captivating.

Harry’s career admittedly was erratic. But they used to say that about Elvis Costello. When you spend so much time creating and publishing — especially when trying to tame influences that ranged from vaudeville to  Ray Charles to rock and roll — there are bound to be clunkers. But that simply makes the gems shine so much brighter.

Absolutely, the soaring, searing “Without You” is a beautiful song, one that snagged Harry his second Grammy (Nilsson fans know: It actually was written by the guys in Badfinger). But have you ever heard the original version of “One,” which became a hit for Three Dog Night?

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What about “Spaceman”? Or “You’re Breaking My Heart,” with its infamous kiss-off line? (If you don’t know, go find it.)

You wouldn’t even be singing, “You put the lime in de coconut and drink ’em both up” if not for Harry. And we wouldn’t have witnessed the insane, bottle-throwing, Smothers Brothers-heckling post-Beatles binge by Lennon, egged on by his American boyo, during a brief split with Yoko.

Fans of Shel Silverstein would appreciate “The Point,” Harry’s cartoon film — created with animation director Fred Wolf, and broadcast in 1971 as an “ABC Movie of the Week” — about a boy named Oblio, the only round-headed person in the Pointed Village, where, by law, everyone and everything had to have a point. That included his dog…. Arrow.

Some of us are fortunate to still have a vinyl copy of the album, which included the hit single “Me and My Arrow.”

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The grandson of “aerial ballet” circus performers, Harry Nilsson approached music the way George Carlin did comedy — a counter-culturalist who nonetheless wowed the critics and seduced audiences. And it wasn’t only attitude: Nilsson’s canon includes poignant, touching ballads that would have made the Gershwins green (personal favorite: “The Moonbeam Song”).

His songwriting got him in the door: He penned hits for Glen Campbell, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds and — get this — Fred Astaire.

And although he became a favorite of the Monkees (Dolenz remained a close friend until Harry’s death), it was the Beatles’ imprimatur that got everybody talkin’ about Harry.


Thanks to “Midnight Cowboy,” Harry got his first Grammy award. Then came “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and a song that was never recorded for an album but remains in the memory banks of 50-somethings everywhere:

Richard Barone recently sought email requests before playing a living room show in Montclair. I was floored when he played mine: “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” featured in the 1971 film “La Mortadella,” starring Sophia Loren.

As amazing as that song is — along with so many others Harry wrote before he died in 1994 — nothing approaches the blissful perfection of “Everybody’s Talkin’.” It was an anthem for our times, not to mention the soundtrack to Ratso Rizzo’s pathetic demise, as the bus seemed to keep circling the same stretch of Tonnelle Avenue approaching Route 3.

Although an album of Randy Newman tunes didn’t sell, Harry finally had the critics convinced — if not the record labels.

I’ll leave the decline of Harry’s career for the filmmakers to describe. Same for all the wacky stories — including the fact that both Mama Cass and Keith Moon died in his London flat — as well as the crippling grief over Lennon’s death and the loss of his entire fortune at the hands of an unscrupulous business partner.

I’d rather remember the magic.

To this day, in fact, there are many who, like me, would shout his praises from the rooftops:

“Anyone susceptible to [Harry Nilsson’s] graceful melodies, witty and poignant lyrics, and preternaturally sweet voice — will want to see ‘Who is Harry Nilsson…?’” – A.O. Scott, THE NEW YORK TIMES

“A deeply felt documentary… Writer-director John Scheinfeld covers the many ups and downs of his life thoroughly and empathetically, without sentimentalizing or rationalizing away the demons that Nilsson struggled with, and eventually succumbed to.” – Randy Lewis, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

[“WHO IS HARRY NILSSON…?”] becomes like one of his songs: melancholy, whimsical, and memorable. – Ben Greenman, THE NEW YORKER

“…In a perfect world, everybody would still be talking’ about him. Thankfully, John Scheinfeld’s documentary does that and more…” – David Fear, TIME OUT NEW YORK

“Rarely has the life of any music figure been covered with as much obvious love and honesty as in this film. A highly engaging, deeply touching ride.” – David Noh, Film Journal International

“The sense of personal involvement…elevates the film above the run-of-the-mill rockumentary.” – Andrew Schenker, The Village Voice

“Director John Scheinfeld’s film, utilizing interviews with friends and collaborators, hits a high note.” – Joe Neumaier, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

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