Harry Nilsson was a late-1960s/early-1970s Los Angeles-based songwriter’s songwriter — The Beatles adored him and Three Dog Night recorded his “One” — who also had such a fluidly expressive vocal range that he briefly became a best-selling recording artist with both hits that he wrote (“Me and My Arrow,” “Jump Into the Fire”) and ones he covered (“Everybody’s Talkin,’ ” “Without You”). But a weakness for booze and drugs, as well as a reputation for being difficult and ambivalent about success, caused a fade from public view long before he died of heart disease at age 52 in 1994.
On his way down, Nilsson and John Lennon once famously got ejected from an L.A.
club for heckling the Smothers Brothers. For this documentary, which has a wealth of archival footage — as well as excerpts from candid audio interviews with Nilsson about his life — director/writer John Scheinfeld sets out to explore in depth just how strong his artistic accomplishments were. And he doesn’t shy away from the self-destructive aspects of his personality.
A who’s-who of L.A.’s great Boomer songwriters (Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson) are on hand to share their opinions and remembrances. (So, too, are the Smothers Brothers.) Richard Perry, the producer of his million-selling breakthrough Nilsson Schmilsson album, offers deep insight into the creation of that classic, as well as some damning opinion about why Nilsson subsequently tried to sabotage that success.
But actually, as you hear the music he went on to make — including a stately album of standards and a lovely song for the movie The Fisher King — you wonder if Perry was right. Nilsson also honorably dedicated himself to handgun control after Lennon’s assassination and tried to do right for his family as he grew weaker. Overall, he emerges as a kind, caring but deeply flawed man and a terrific songwriter. Grade: B