Sunday, January 9, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?"

When he died at age 53 in 1994, overcome by decades of heedless carousing, the singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson was chiefly remembered for a handful of hits: the heartrending Without You, the goofy Coconut, and the haunting Everybody's Talkin', the Midnight Cowboy theme (which, ironically enough, he didn't write).

But as John Scheinfeld's thorough and poignant Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? demonstrates, there was a moment when people talked about Nilsson in the same breath as The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Elton John. In the late '60s and early '70s, just as he was embarking on his mind-boggling dissolution, Nilsson was John Lennon and Paul McCartney's favorite performer, was a perennial Grammy nominee, and was noted and envied for both his playful compositions and his ethereal voice, which stretched angelically over three octaves.

Haunted by memories of a childhood passed in a fractured, alcoholic home, Nilsson couldn't enjoy his success, and Scheinfeld's sympathetic portrait, which includes interviews with his wives, children, musical collaborators and such chums as Robin Williams, Mickey Dolenz, Terry Gilliam, and Randy Newman (whose early career was boosted when Nilsson recorded an entire album of his songs) isn't so much accusatory as wistful. There's something deflating in the spectacle of Nilsson's slow self-destruction, and even the remarkable songs and his unearthly performances of them can't wipe out the sadness that infuses the film.

Still, despite the film's inevitably downbeat tone and occasional repetitiveness, there is that heavenly music to remember -- or to encounter for the first time. When you remove this DVD from the player you'll find yourself singing, if with a touch of melancholy.

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