I’m guessing that most people I know are fully aware of who Harry Nilsson is. Quite simply one of the greatest singer/songwriters of them all. You can quite often tell how great an artist is by the quality of the artists ready to be talking heads when such a documentary as ‘Who Is Harry Nilsson?’ comes around. Let’s just say that the list is essentially the best of the best – The Monkees, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Randy Newman, Paul Williams, essentially a who’s who of the all time golden stars.
The Nilsson story is the usual cliche of fame bringing the downfall of our hero and drink and drugs stealing away the magic of the voice and the productivity. The film is not terribly sad though, despite the obviously devastating ending, this is a celebration of the man and the spirit that brings out a smile in everyone who knew him. The tale is always the same, Harry calls, you answer the call and then days are lost forever. Yet inbetween these adventures, Nilsson could stop off in a studio and create album after album of poetic beauty, the sweet and the sour, the magical and the dark. Song after song, project after project – a soundtrack here (Altman’s Popeye/Midnight Cowboy), a movie and a soundtrack there (The Point/Skidoo), songs for other bands (Three Dog Night/The Monkees), albums of classics (A Randy Newman covers record) and an album with an icon (Pussycats with John Lennon).
As well as musicians, there are film icons here too, Robin Williams one minute, Terry Gilliam the next, all brightening up and hitting fan mode at just the mention of his name. We also get to meet all of his family as well as all the famous people and some of the most heartfelt moments are when one of the greats is ‘just’ being a father and a husband. His wife Una tells some great stories and gives the makers of the film all access to her emotions and feelings and we meet the children left behind who all tell their special little tales of their father.
But the reason you are here is some of the best music ever made and there is plenty throughout the film. Unlike most of this type of thing, there are no live gigs as Harry did not believe in such a thing – there is a great radio phone-in where a fan asks when he is going to tour and he merely brushes it off saying he is not going to do that and he never did. There was a BBC special without an audience of which there is plenty of footage here and there are also lots of in the studio sequences which are fascinating – for someone who is such a massive fan of Nilsson and also The Beach Boys, it is magical to see Harry in the studio with the iconic Van Dyke Parks and also having Brian Wilson talking about how great he is. The best of the best saying you are the best. That is the crux of the story, the man is long gone but the songs are still here and just go to Spotify and give a listen to Daddy’s Song or Cuddly Toy or, hell, even Without You is as emotional and hard hitting as when you first heard it. This is timeless pop and this is a great documentary about a great man. Seek it out.