Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Some Thoughts On The Nilsson Doc

I finally got to see the long-time-in-the-making Harry Nilsson documentary, Who Is Harry Nilsson?, the other night.  Some lightly sifted thoughts:

This movie may be unmatched as an endless parade of bad teeth and embarrassing hair styles.  Some of the fashions on display betray the length of time it took to finish the movie - clearly, much of the interview footage had to wait several years before making it to the screen.  I'm sure some of the participants are as mortified by the way they look in this movie as I am by my high school yearbook photos.  Yes, Van Dyke, those jeans do make your butt look big.

Though not made with the skill of an Errol Morris, a D.A. Pennebaker, or even a Burns brother, I would've been happy to sit through this movie if it had run to the length (239 min) of Peter Bogdanovich's admirably workmanlike Tom Petty doc.  There's probably a sharper, more stylish movie to be made with this material, but as a Nilsson fan, I'll take what I can get and like it.

I was disappointed that one of my favorite Nilsson albums (and a great example of the Late Work As Neglected Gem genre, a genre I think I made up*), Knnillssonn, wasn't mentioned (although one or two songs from it made the soundtrack).  The story of its "comeback album" potential being squelched by the ill-timed death of Elvis (Harry's RCA labelmate) seems like it would've been an irresistible story for the filmmakers, but instead, the late RCA albums were glossed over as if they were all of a self-indulgent yet half-assed piece.

Speaking of underrated albums, I wanted to shout at the screen when Richard Perry started dissing Son of Schmilsson.  I love both of the Perry-produced Nilsson albums, but I've always preferred the rough edges of SoS over the more polished (but undeniably masterful) Nilsson Schmilsson.  Perry's interview footage is very revealing.  After "Without You" became a worldwide hit, he saw a wide open road of nothing but good times and platinum records ahead, but Harry grabbed the wheel and, like Neil Young at around the same time, steered into the ditch.  The footage of Harry with the pensioners' choir recording "I'd Rather Be Dead" undercuts Perry beautifully (the old folks get it, Richard!), though he would probably see it as indicative of Nilsson's growing self-indulgence. In any case, it makes me wish the SoS making-of documentary had been finished and released (it's not too late, of course).

Some of the best moments in the movie occurred, as one might expect, on the soundtrack.  Although Cinema Village must have some of the smallest screening rooms (calling them theaters seems a bit too grand) in New York, and the sound is nothing special, it was still a thrill to hear Harry's voice writ at least semi-large.  Due credit was given to his amazing self-harmonizing and overdubbing abilities and to the phrasing that he was forced to lean on after blowing out his voice during the Pussy Cats sessions.  I'd love to see something like the "Layla" mixing board scene from the Tom Dowd documentary done for one of the great, many-layered Nilsson vocal performances (though for calling attention to the artifice/magic of singing with yourself via studio technology, it would be hard to top his "three Harrys" BBC performance).

In summary: I'm not sure if this documentary is greater than the sum of its parts, in that I'd probably rather see a two-DVD set of Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? and The Music of Nilsson (if such a thing existed), but, for someone who's already a fan, there's more than enough good stuff here to justify the enterprise.

*Though, of course, the idea of artists having a distinct "late style" is a well-known one and can be useful as a lens/key to view/interpret difficult or neglected works in a new way.

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