Rock Docs II

film 3 of 4

Who is Harry Nilsson …?

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

This film begins really well. Nilsson’s documentary biographers have arrayed their artifacts very effectively. The early photographs are utilized in a really revealing, really interesting way.

On the other hand, Nilsson’s actual life begins very badly indeed. Even if she don’t know the end of the story, the viewer gets a sinking sense of dire things to come. Par for this course? It seems that when it comes to behind-the-music, that’s what we always say. It’s true, I guess, but the response is still kind of insensitive, desensitized, even crass. These are dear, talented, troubled people here!

In addition to those fantastic photographs there’s some really great stock footage as well. Greater still is the music itself.  The thesis of this film is correct, and very convincingly demonstrated: Nilsson really is exceptional. His voice might not be quite as angelic and perfect as they make it out to be—the witnesses oversell it because they love him, and the filmmakers oversell it for the film’s sake—but you can’t deny that the whole package is palpably special. And those first songs! (As in this two-fer +: There are a couple of glancing excerpts where we see him at a party (there’s the distinguished film director Otto Preminger, looking ridiculous in a turtleneck and a great big necklace). He’s only singing, but these feints and gestures are so unique, magnetic, beautiful. He is an angel, actually.

Who Is Harry Nilsson …? turns conventional during the Richard Perry/Nilsson Schmilsson section, which is to say during the account of the artist’s popular peak. That’s okay, since it’s a good story, and there’s no reason to get in the way of its straightforward telling. But after that apex there’s a great deal of dispiriting decline, and we alternate between two kinds of boring, right up to the end.

John and Ringo didn’t help him very much, did they? Could it be that our beloved post-mop-tops were as bad for Nilsson as Keith Richards was for Gram Parsons? (See: Are all those rock ‘n roll-hating Churchmen right, after all? Whatever the answer to that question, this biography is evidence not only of the dangers of that lifestyle, but of the catastrophe of success in general.

The well-known story of the destruction of that angelic voice is still wrenching, terrible. The same goes, frankly, for the the accounts of Nilsson’s eventual and extended descent into Led Zep-type excess. Morbidity, or tragedy? It’s in the eye or heart of the beholder, I suppose. But after that promising prologue, and the story of that after-all very brief time at the very top, Who Is Harry Nilsson …? is mostly dedicated to watching someone go utterly to pot. During this long decline the filmmakers, like Nilsson’s loved ones, can’t seem to figure out what to do or say. They might well have pursued a few productive, even consoling avenues. Tell us about these six kids! Or maybe in the end our happiness should be as private as are our sins and sorrowing. Hope, aspiration, and the sparks flying upwards. Sometimes we just don’t know where to turn, do we?