Even if you don't know the name Harry Nilsson, or know him as nothing more than the guy who sang "Everybody's Talkin'" or "Without You," John Scheinfeld's Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) offers a thoroughly engaging examination of one of the more fascinating figures in popular American music. And for those already deeply in the cult of Harry, it's a pleasure to see that the avowed Beatlemaniac is the subject of a documentary as fawning and comprehensive as The Compleat Beatles.
Utilizing archival video and photos, as well as audio of Nilsson (who passed away in 1994) discussing himself, and a wealth of talking-head interviews with luminaries like Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, and Eric Idle who worked and partied with the hard-drinking musical genius, Scheinfeld's film is a remarkably by-the-numbers piece. That's something of a disappointment considering it's about an artist who so often made it a point of pride not to follow the rules -- a stubbornness that manifested itself in his refusal to play concerts.
Nilsson's childhood was difficult, stemming in large part from his father's abandonment when he was a toddler -- an event that would come to be the defining moment in his life. The movie returns again and again to the belief that Harry suffered from a nearly crippling lack of self-esteem, a condition that not only prompted him to forgo live performances, but also played a large part in his seemingly inexhaustible appetite for alcohol and drugs.
But what sets Harry apart from so many similar tales of rock-star hedonism is that instead of resenting those who cared for him, Nilsson seemed to genuinely acknowledge his loved ones. His son, Zak, whom Harry himself abandoned at an early age, appears on camera to say that he firmly believes his father loved him. Along with that touching moment, the seemingly endless string of compliments given by the numerous colleagues who appear onscreen paint a portrait of a man whose lack of self-esteem resulted not in him turning on those who cared for him, but instead made him appreciate the love they expressed.
And of course there's the remarkable music. Nilsson combined his enormous admiration for the Beatles -- at one point someone claims he stated that there was no other rock band -- with an uncanny sense of melody, a strong understanding of song construction, and a sense of humor that could careen from whimsical to dark to sentimental to sarcastic within the same song. From the jaunty melody but cruel lyrics of "Cuddly Toy," to the playful songs that comprise his children's musical The Point, to his aching vocals on his cover of Badfinger's "Without You," the movie reveals the depth and breadth of his talent -- so much so that it's frustrating that we never get to hear one of his songs from start to finish.
Scheinfeld's film may not be perfect, but it's far more high-minded than your typical episode of Behind the Music, offering a fully fleshed-out portrait of a multi-faceted man who could transform pain into spectacular music, even though he couldn't purge that pain from his life. Although it's remarkably short on humiliating tales of public drunkenness, the movie never lets you forget that Nilsson could be difficult to be around -- particularly when he was sloshed. But what you're left with is a touching tribute to a complicated person and artist, and the film succeeds in making you love Harry as much as those who knew him did.