One of many standout films to grace the first half of the Santa Barbara Film Festival, John Scheinfeld’s “Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)” is rockumentary filmmaking at its finest. Complete with the requisite boozing, gallivanting and struggling for artistic integrity, “Who is Harry Nilsson?” plays like an eerily compelling episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” except with bigger guest stars and a better soundtrack. Like its basic cable counterpart, the film’s premise is simple: low-income family raises boy, boy finds calling writing songs and devotes his life to music, industry execs discover boy and jump for financial joy, then boy grows into man, makes millions, befriends the Beatles and squanders his talents (and health) in the bottom of a bottle. Still, despite the immense fame and popularity of so many of Nilsson’s songs, few know this legendary rock ‘n’ roll enigma by name – or by face.
Never one to fit into a niche or tailor his music to a commercial aesthetic, Nilsson was best known publicly as the voice behind “Midnight Cowboy’s” Oscar-winning song, “Everybody’s Talkin’.” “Who is Harry Nilsson?” opens somberly with a clip of Dustin Hoffman publicly announcing Nilsson’s untimely death on national television in 1994. Throughout the two-hour long montage of clips, music and interviews that follow, friends and family recount Harry as eccentric, fun-loving, ingeniously talented and often manic in his pursuits. New and archival footage is flawlessly intertwined with Nilsson’s own voice-overs, which were recently discovered as part of an audio autobiography that few even knew existed. As his life story – a downward spiral of drinking and drugging that began far before he was “discovered” – unfolds before us, we overhear a friend say that, “[Harry] spent most of his life in the pursuit of a good time, and he caught it. And it caught him in the end.” Despite his destructive tendencies, Nilsson’s remarkable three-octave vocal range and eclectic repertoire make his status as a relative unknown remarkable to say the least. Just as the majority of the tunes he wrote went on to become hits sung by other people – think Three Dog Night’s “One” and The Monkees’ “Cuddly Toy” – so too did Nilsson make a living off of covering his contemporaries. (He released an entire album of Randy Newman songs in 1970.)
Throughout the film, Newman – alongside Yoko Ono, Robin Williams, Terry Gilliam, Brian Wilson and many others – brings Nilsson to life through a number of shockingly off-the-wall anecdotes and mournfully bitter memories. Still, while the tales of Nilsson’s painful self-destruction are riveting, it is his remarkable talent and diverse artistic range that take center stage here. As a creator of pun-filled children’s musicals (1971’s “The Point”), painfully low-budget rock films (1974’s “The Son of Dracula,” starring buddy Ringo Starr) and award-winning records (1973’s Nilsson Schmilsson), we see Nilsson pour his heart – and more often than not his sanity – into every project he touched. His never-ending strive for creative license makes him both irrationally frustrating and compelling to watch on screen. And it is this constant battle within the viewer that makes it easy to see that Scheinfeld has done his job. Because somewhere between empathizing and loathing his devastating genius, one comes to the realization that they have, in effect, met Harry Nilsson and come to respect him.
“Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)” makes its world premiere on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre. Tickets are $10.