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FULL DISCLOSURE DEPARTMENT: We've known director John Scheinfeld for over 30 years. That hasn't stopped us from giving negative reviews to his work when it was deserved. If we weren't going to be honest with a friend, why should you expect us to be honest with you? So . . .
IN SHORT: A terrific documentary of a contrary songwriter. [Not Rated. 116 minutes]
This being the story of one Harry Edward Nilsson III, born 1941, surviving a broken home and living 52 years 7 months on planet earth. What can we say about Harry Nilsson? He clerked at a bank. He wrote songs in his spare time, including the hit "Cuddly Toy" for The Monkees, which got him a record deal. He received an Academy Award for performing the smash hit "Everybody's Talkin'" from the film Midnight Cowboy, though he didn't write the song. When he was rich, he lived a life devoid of love but full of alcohol. When he was poor he found True Love. He was as devoted to his new family as, once upon a time, he was to alcohol. He made amends to those he treated badly. And then he died.
And, watching Nilsson's animated television film The Point was one of the true joys of Cranky's kidlethood.Now, music industry bios are usually straightforward. There's an interview and a performance. Repeat as necessary. Director John Scheinfeld faced one major problem while constructing his film; Nilsson refused to tour. In general he refused to perform his songs at all and the few times he did deign to commit a performance to tape or film, it was of whatever material he felt like singing at the time.
That means that for any documentary creator seeking to do the "Harry Nilsson Story" there's very little material to work with. So props to John for making a film that is as enlightening as it is fun to watch. And while Nilsson's life might be seen as much of a waste as it resolved itself in a happy ending, if the film inspires you to go out and find the music, so much the better.
Nilsson was, after all, John Lennon's "favorite group." The Beatles liked him. Several befriended him. One accompanied him on an alcoholic binge that lasted years and ended with the destruction of his singing voice, a voice envied (it is reported) by many of his fellow musicians. Even worse, the record label executives that ran Nilsson's career insisted he waste his time on things like tribute albums to other artists other bands continued to have hits with his songs, "One" by Three Dog Night being the biggest of those. Scheinfeld manages to stuff his film full of music, from the aforementioned hits to appearances on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the bizarre film for his song "Coconut" (as in "put de lime in de...")
Along the path that is Nilsson's come such interesting projects as writing the soundtrack for the Robert Altman's Popeye film disaster and Nilsson's own television creation - and Cranky's particular favorite - called The Point. Then there was Son of Dracula, one of the worst films ever made; a film that has seen less screen time than Plan X From Outer Space. And for those of us of a certain age, a certain television theme about the guy who was Eddie's father. You know what we're talking about.
Nilsson's life plays out with all the crash and burn one expected of big stars of the 1960s. His life had its dark side and Scheinfeld doesn't shy away from that, using interviews with those who knew Harry best, his wives and children -- both those he treated well and those he didn't -- and the musicians who knew him,, from Brian Wilson to Mickey Dolenz and John Lennon's other halves, May Pang and Yoko Ono. It is a full fledged portrait, uniques given that Nilsson remains more a staple of "soft-rock" radio -- an oxymoron if ever there was one -- than he is acknowledged as a terrific songwriter. That what happened to him actually happened to him, is as Hollywood as it is a shame.
It's also a captivating story and an engaging sit.
John Scheinfeld has made a terrific documentary, folks. How it rates for you will depend a whole lot upon how you were exposed to Harry's music. So, ignoring that music thing first, assuming you know nothing and just looked up this review . . .
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Who is Harry Nilsson, he would have paid . . .
If you only know Nilsson from that abominable radio format -- Cranky used to be a regular rock radio person -- or from the use of his song "Jump into the Fire" (now making the rounds as the soundtrack to a car commercial) add a buck for a solid $7.50
If you ran through Nilsson's catalog when it was new, including everything already referenced and other hits like "Without You (Can't Live)", "I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City", "Me and My Arrow" make it another -- $8.50 -- or buy the whole DVD. It'll be worth it.
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