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Everybody's Talkin' About Harry Nilsson

Singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson was sometimes called "the fifth Beatle," and John Scheinfeld's musical biodoc is illuminating, star-filled, and wildly entertaining.


In the documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), director John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) explores the rough-and-tumble life of the talented singer/songwriter. Best known for his classic, Oscar-winning hit, Everybody's Talkin' At Me (see above), from Midnight Cowboy, Nilsson was a close friend of The Beatles, especially Ringo Starr, who was the best man at Nilsson's wedding.


A veritable who's who list of superstars from the '60s and '70s—including Brian Wilson, Micky Dolenz, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Hugh Hefner, Robin Williams, Jimmy Webb, and more—reminisce about Harry's life in the biodoc, which is illuminating, musical, and wildly entertaining. We asked Scheinfeld to tell us more about what went into this labor or love.


Who is Harry Nilsson?


Tribeca: How do you describe Harry Nilsson to those who may not know who he is?


John Scheinfeld: Harry was an extraordinarily gifted artist… and an extraordinarily complex human being. He was not as famous as some of his friends (John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Keith Moon), but his music inspired them and so many others. He had a relatively short career (13 years), but created a body of work that has withstood the test of time. Harry was someone who achieved great success on his own terms… something that I feel should be admired and celebrated.


Tribeca: You’ve profiled a number of musicians in your long career. What inspired you to tell Harry’s story?


John Scheinfeld: I first encountered Harry’s music as a freshman at Oberlin College when I was doing a morning radio show. I was prowling through the record cabinet when the unusual cover of Pandemonium Shadow Show attracted my attention. I checked out the label and saw a track called You Can’t Do That. “Probably a lousy version of a Beatles track,” I thought to myself as I popped the vinyl on the turntable in the Listening Room. It was Beatles all right, but what an amazing and creative way to weave the fabric of a new song from Fab Four titles. The rest of the album was a fascinating and irresistible blend of musical styles that was all his own.


I couldn’t help myself. For the next few hours I pulled every Harry album off the cabinet shelves and was hooked. (I even used one track, his version of Randy Newman’s Dayton, Ohio – 1903 in a radio drama I produced some months later.)
So when the opportunity presented itself to make a documentary film about Harry, I couldn’t resist. And the more research I did, the more fascinating his story became. It was filled with an unusual richness and texture that I believed would make for a powerful and emotional film.


Who is Harry Nilsson?
Director John Scheinfeld


Tribeca: Were you working on it at the same time as The U.S. vs. John Lennon? I imagine some research overlapped?


John Scheinfeld: Actually, Who is Harry Nilsson…? was made over a period of time betwixt and between several other projects. Research, shooting interviews, accumulating audio-visual material—all were done while we were working on other productions, The U.S. vs. John Lennon included. Personally, I love this kind of multi-tasking. It was a labor of love for all involved and, in so many ways, is the very essence of an indie film. We managed to overcome challenges of time, manpower, clearances…


Tribeca: How did you round up all these talking heads? Robin Williams, Terry Gilliam, Yoko Ono, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson… Were people happy to share Harry stories? They are quite moving.


John Scheinfeld: The creative premise under which we operated was to feature only people who knew Harry. Not critics or rock historians, but friends, colleagues, peers, and family members who had intimate knowledge of the man and his music and could speak with legitimacy and credibility. One thing that struck me during the making of this film is that everyone we spoke with really and truly loved Harry. They loved him for what he was… and in spite of what he wasn’t. And it is that love that prompted so many people to want to be in our film, and it is evident in every word they speak.


Who is Harry Nilsson?


Tribeca: What an amazing, ready-made soundtrack! How long did it take you to sort through his whole catalogue and choose the songs to focus on?


John Scheinfeld: Honestly, we were probably listening to Harry tracks for inclusion for nearly two years, from the start-up to the very moment we locked picture. As in other films I’ve made, the music in this movie is used to advance the story, to comment on incidents as they unfold, and to provide a window into what Harry might have been thinking or feeling at a given moment. Therefore, as the script and structure changed during production, so, too, did the songs chosen.
In addition, with the generous and amazing support of Sony Music (especially Rob Santos), we went into the studio and remixed more than two dozen Nilsson tracks, stripping off the lead vocals and leaving the original backing tracks. As produced by Rick Jarrard, Richard Perry, John Lennon and Harry himself, these amazing tracks possess beauty, poignancy, energy, pain, and humor, all the emotional elements needed to score the picture. All music in the film, therefore, whether with lyrics or without, is by Nilsson.


Who is Harry Nilsson?
Richard Perry and Harry Nilsson


Tribeca: What about all the footage? Any interesting stories about gathering all the material?


John Scheinfeld: Absolutely! There is awesome, rare and never-before-seen footage in the film. Perhaps my biggest creative challenge was how to make a film about a musician who never performed live and who made precious few TV appearances.


We had to cast an extremely wide net to locate and obtain footage to tell Harry’s story. We went to news and entertainment archives around the world. Una Nilsson [his widow] graciously allowed us to go through boxes, drawers and closets in her home in search of material. Micky Dolenz and producer Chip Douglas allowed us to use their home movies, which had amazing shots of Harry. "Do it for Harry” became the mantra for everyone involved. Many footage providers bent over backwards to give us good deals when licensing footage.


Perhaps the best story of all involves Hugh Hefner. Among the rarest of Harry’s TV work was an appearance on the late-night syndicated show, Playboy After Dark. But the series had not been seen in decades and was not then available on home video (it is now). The person in charge said, “Even if we were willing to license the footage to you, the cost would be prohibitive, so you’d best forget it.” I am known in my circles for writing passionate letters (not to mention being relentless in pursuit of needed footage), and so I composed one to Hef. As it turned out, he was a friend and admirer of Harry’s and considered him to be a great artist. Three days later an associate called to say, “Hef says you can have whatever you need. No charge.”


Who is Harry Nilsson?


Tribeca: How do you think Harry’s unstable childhood affected his life?


John Scheinfeld: It’s difficult under any circumstances to be an armchair psychiatrist. But as we make clear in the film, the fact that Harry was abandoned by his father was a demon that haunted him his entire life. That his mother was under intense financial pressure to provide for her children, and that his childhood was so unstable, clearly made a significant impact on the development and evolution of his character.


Tribeca: What is your advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers?


John Scheinfeld: Be passionate about your subject. It’s hard work making documentaries. They demand much time and energy without the compensation received for working on a feature film or a TV series, so you’d better love what you’re doing!


Who is Harry Nilsson?


Tribeca: Last but not least, what makes Who is Harry Nilsson [And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him]? a must-see?

John Scheinfeld:
This is probably best left to someone who’s seen the film or a critic. However… from my point of view, I tried to make a documentary that is as entertaining, dramatic, poignant, and funny as any narrative feature film, not to mention one that would introduce the great music of Harry Nilsson to people of all ages around the world.


Who is Harry Nilsson [And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?] opens on Friday at Cinema Village. Find tickets.


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