Watch the Tunes: Who Is Harry Nilsson?

On May 20, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, which is streaming over at Amazon Prime.

Where do you even start with an artist like Harry Nilsson? Somehow still pretty much known to most of the world as “the guy who did that goofy coconut song” he was a legit genius who’s almost criminally in need of a much wider awareness. Thankfully, the film Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? represents an excellent attempt to spread the gospel of Harry, and you owe it to yourself to toss it into your streaming hopper.

Who Is Harry Nilsson follows a pretty staid path from Harry’s birth in 1941 on up to his death in 1994. Like the title implies, he’s a guy whose fingerprints are everywhere but his name doesn’t ring out like it should. He was friends with the guys in Monty Python, he wrote some hits for the Monkees, Brian Wilson was in awe of his talent, and he was directly name checked when the Beatles were asked who their influences were (Ringo was even the best man at Nilsson’s wedding). Speaking of the Beatles, more than a few folks point out that Nilsson was the closest that America ever came to its own Beatles. Now, why would a guy with credentials like that end up being so under-known for his accomplishments?

Part of the thing that creatively drove Nilsson, it turns out, was the massive (and understandable) chip he had on his shoulder about his father leaving at a young age. That same gaping hole in his life led to profoundly low self-esteem and a self-destructive streak though so... yeah, his whole professional life was spent trying to balance that. The filmmakers make a point to highlight the song “1941” from his first album Pandemonium Shadow Show as just a taste of what I’m talking about.

Nilsson might not have had the stomach for live performance (he never toured, another stumbling block for spreading his music) but he was more than ballsy enough to follow his muse no matter how much it might’ve ended up hurting his career. It crushed all the momentum of the one two punch of Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson when he put out a standards album as their follow up. A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which Nilsson might have thought was his best work, was expectedly less than marketable to anyone who wanted more tracks like “Jump Into The Fire.” It was right around this point that Nilsson’s boozing got to be a bit of a problem, insofar as it can be a problem for the guy everyone loved to get drunk with for days on end.

Nilsson had a golden voice, one of the greatest ever according to a couple of the talking heads here, but all it took was a long weekend of drinking and a screaming competition with John Lennon during the recording of Pussy Cats, to shred his vocal chords beyond repair. It’s the sort of thing that’s so stupid as to lead friends to still second guess as to whether it was a “pushed or jumped” career suicide scenario.

Nilsson left a fascinating and ultimately sad legacy. His music is categorically wonderful (Nilsson Sings Newman is a flat out perfect record, if you ask me), but the story behind his life is deeply affecting, and not in a triumphant sort of way. Nilsson came so far from the low status into which he was born, but even with creative freedom and success he still just couldn’t shake the spectre of his absent father until it was too late. The one thing that Nilsson had, that Who Is... does an excellent job of highlighting, were his friends. So many people seem to come out of the woodwork to express what a great time it was to be around him and to work with him. The two notions that you’re left with is that the only thing better than his music was to actually be in the presence of the man. While it never really does more than simply tell Nilsson’s story as it was seen though these loved ones, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) is an absorbing narrative and an excellent introduction to the man whose body of work should be better known.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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