22 November, 2011
Review: Snag Films Meets Who Is Harry Nilsson
Suppose Christopher Guest decided to make a new film and it was inspired by a late night viewing of Forest Gump. At first it seems like a complete put on. Here's the critical piece of information you need to understand the rest of this. I had never hear of Harry Nilsson in my life. Wait, you need two pieces of information. I have spent my life as an avid fan of 60's and 70's music, right down to Leo Sayer. I am conversant with Popsicle Toes and Put The Bone In. Plus punk. And funk. Also, disco and prog. I get around. So. This guy comes on who looks vaguely Monty Python meets Late Night Local TV and he segues into a clip of Dustin Hoffman sadly saying that some guy named Harry Nilsson had died. A person in the audience shouts something - maybe it's no - but it means he expects his audience to know who this dude is. Dustin helpfully tells me it's the guy who sang Midnight Cowboy's theme song. Got it. Ok, some session musician? Cool. Wait, he wrote One Is The Loneliest Number? Is that a picture of him with The Beatles? John Lennon is saying the guy is his favorite artist? What? Right down to having Eric Idle chatting after some guy with so much Botox that only his tongue moves when he laughs, this thing was playing like a fake. Except it wasn't.
I have spent decades in record shops, in flea markets, in garage sales, in people's parents basements. I have touched albums people haven't thought about since they were released and I've never come across Harry Nilsson? This tells me two things. The first is that obviously Nilsson lovers hoard the albums like jealous lovers. The second is that I am ignorant. Ignorant as the day is long and twice as uneducated. After I accepted that this story wasn't fiction and none of these pictures were photoshop, I set about understanding where he fits into the musical landscape. The answer was everywhere. In Nilsson's erratic catalog I heard influence being handed off to artists as diverse as Tom Petty and Bruno Mars. Even Cee-Lo has either heard this stuff or heard something from someone who has. Parts of it are as godawful as any 70's creation and parts of it could be recorded tomorrow. Yoko Ono and May Pang both eulogize Harry. (That takes a minute to process all by itself.)
The documentary is wonderfully understated. Harry Nilsson was a train wreck. A very slow moving one. Like Lennon, he abandoned one child only to become Father Of The Year for the next. Like Lennon, he's got an ex wife who sees him as deeply flawed and damaged and a widow who reveres him. Like Lennon, he has a great cause in his life and is willing to sacrifice parts of his career to it's pursuit. Like Lennon, he hangs out with Beatles. He is like the slightly kinder, much softer version of his friend. Complete with deserting a child as he was deserted and never really getting that he's done that. Cuddly Toy may not be a Mr. Pindommy's Dilemma, but the Nilsson catalog proves to be both utterly familiar and bizarrely new. Alternating between "He wrote that?" and "He wrote THAT?" I was amazed. I think Nilsson was far less clever than the film presents - there is an element of dogged work ethic that erodes the narrative of simple genius. It makes it all the more impressive.