If you’ve ever belted out the chorus I can’t live if living is without you. I can’t live, I can’t give anymore, (and really, who hasn’t?) then you owe it to yourself to watch the documentary (now out on DVD) Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?). It’s the fascinating story of the tragic genius whose contribution to 60’s and 70’s pop culture is epic. Though we’ve all sung along to radio hits like “Without You” “Coconut” and “One” and the Midnight Cowboy theme “Everybody’s Talkin” or even “Best Friend” of Courtship of Eddie’s Father fame, most people still only vaguely associate Harry Nilsson with those songs. The documentary reminds us of this remarkable talent while also showing how a high dose of own worst enemy can really get in the way of a career and sadly, a life. The film is produced by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, the same team who brought us the 2006 critically acclaimed documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon and it beautifully presents the story of Harry Nilsson’s ascent to major recording star. Even those well versed in all things Schmilsson will relish hearing about the former bank employee’s unlikely connection to The Monkees, John Lennon and Ringo Starr with one even serving as his best man. And though it’s not the happiest of endings, you’ll still come away inspired. Just being reminded of The Point makes it worth while. Because we at boomitude.com were so taken by this film and haven’t been able to shake it, we tracked down John Sheinfeld, the film’s writer, producer and director to ask him a few questions. Adding a little more insight into an already amazing story, here’s what he had to say:
How did you come to make this film?
I’d been a fan of Harry’s music since my freshman year at Oberlin College when I played his music on my morning radio show. A few years ago Lee Blackman, Harry’s good friend and long-time attorney, had approached me about doing a documentary about Harry. I was intrigued, but knew very little about his life. So I started researching and the more I read, the more I became convinced that this was a remarkable story that had to be told. It has an extraordinary richness and texture – Harry’s career was as complex, exhilarating, maddening and inspiring as the man himself – and I felt it would make for a powerful and highly emotional film.
Did you know Harry personally?
For so many reasons it would have been wonderful to meet Harry, but I never had that pleasure. However, after making this film I feel as though I know him intimately.
How did you obtain Nilsson’s own spoken interview?
One of the things I love most about making a documentary film is the “treasure hunting” – making like a detective and tracking down the most rare and unusual audio-visual material with which to tell a story. In this case, it all began with Harry’s widow, Una. She very graciously allowed me to come out to her house and rummage through her drawers, closets, attic, basement and garage in search of material and memorabilia to include in the movie. We found so much cool stuff, including photos, video and film that had been seen by no one outside Harry’s family and inner circle of friends. It was during this time that we discovered that Harry, in the last few years of his life, had started recording his memories on cassette tapes for what he intended to be an autobiography. Although he passed away before he could finish that project, we were able to locate those tapes and, with the blessing of Una and Lee Blackman, we were able to use lengthy excerpts in the film so that, in effect, Harry is telling his own story in his own words. It was like striking gold!
The soundtracking of the film is brilliant and acts as its own running narrative. How did you go about it and what were the challenges to that process?
Thank you for noticing! I felt it was essential that all music in the film be Harry’s. The film has wall-to-wall music, more than 50 songs spanning his entire career. There is classic Harry, unreleased Harry and rare Harry. All of Harry’s biggest hits are included, as are some lesser-known but equally powerful compositions and several unreleased and demo tracks. As in all my films, I employ the music to propel the story line forward, to comment on what’s happening on-screen, or to provide a window into what Harry might have been thinking or feeling at a given moment. Never did we just include a song to include a song – there’s a reason for every tune and lyric to be where it is.
Most exciting…with the generous support of Sony Music…I flew to New York to work at the Magic Shop (a terrific recording studio on Crosby Street in Soho). The idea was to take more than two dozen of Harry’s original album tracks and strip off the vocals leaving the original backing track that could be used as the score for the film. Rob Santos of Sony was in the studio with me and owner/mixer extraordinaire, Steve Rosenthal. It was definitely an eerie experience listening to Harry’s studio chatter and working with music he had recorded decades before. Over an intense 2-day period, working nearly 15 hours-a-day, we listened to each song from start to finish and Steve would analyze the track separation. As the recordings spanned the years 1967 to 1977 the instrumentation and vocals could be spread across 4, 8, 16 or 32 tracks. He and Rob would then determine the best way to remove the vocals and still maintain the artistic integrity of the track. Certain performances, we discovered, were actually much longer than the released versions, having been faded during the mastering process. These tracks Steve mixed at the full length so we would have the maximum amount of music to use. In others we discovered terrific solo playing that had been buried in the original mix or simply not used (“Mourning Glory Story,” for example, had a gorgeous horn part that we started referring to as “that Gershwin thing.”). On others, as in the case of “I’ll Never Leave You,” we took the separate harp and woodwind tracks and created a new version of the song that was quite moody and emotional and perfect for where I wanted to use it in the film. As originally produced by Rick Jarrard, Richard Perry, John Lennon and Harry himself, these recordings possess extraordinary beauty, poignancy, energy, pain and humor, every mood and feeling that we needed to create a powerful score for all aspects of Harry’s life story.
Why isn’t Ringo interviewed in the film?
Ringo was extremely supportive of this film during production. He provided us with permissions and audio-visual material, including the clips from the super-rare film, Son of Drac. We requested an on-camera interview with him several times, but were told it’s just too emotional for him to speak about Harry in public. We totally understood and are supportive of his decision.
What did you personally come away with after doing this film?
One thing that did strike me during the making of this film was that everyone talkin’ about Harry really and truly loved him. They loved him for what he was…and for what he wasn’t…and it is that love that prompted so many people to want to be in the movie. That love is evident in every word they speak which is why, I think, so many people have said they found watching the film to be such an emotional experience.
Which Nilsson song holds a special meaning to you after making this film & why?
It’s extremely hard to choose just one song from such an amazing body of work. But if pressed I would say “1941” because of the raw and powerful emotion it contains and conveys.