Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?) is a documentary about American singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. The title of the movie alludes to the mostly-known-by-music-snobs Nilsson’s most recognized song, the theme from Midnight Cowboy. Despite being a prolific songwriter, writing in a variety of styles and genres (including children’s songs), Nilsson just sang the song, he did not pen “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Rather, that distinction belongs to Fred Neil—a folk artist whose rendition of “Everybody’s Talkin’” is just as good as Nilsson’s. The movie is, well, not that great. Like the 2009 film I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, this documentary about Harry Nilsson juxtaposes the relative obscurity of a very talented person with an abundance of interviewees talking about how they, unlike most people, actually know who this person was. Chances are, if you are watching a film about John Cazale or Harry Nilsson, you probably already know who they were. A lot of the film consists of talking heads in the form of Nilsson’s friends, such as Micky Dolenz and Eric Idle, talking about Nilsson’s destructive lifestyle including his drinking and drugging. And the film keeps repeating how Nilsson’s music, and Nilsson himself, was liked by The Beatles. A lot. I guess because if John, Ringo, George and Paul like you, you must be good. The movie sometimes leaves things unexplored such as Nilsson’s involvement with Phil Spector[i], Popeye or how his drinking affected his family. The movie’s timeline of Nilsson’s life is sometimes confusing. For instance, unlike other artists described as self-destructive, such as Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison, Nilsson died when he was fifty-two. Like many films about celebrities, at times it seems as if the film’s makers, interested in getting cooperation and access, sacrificed their ability to ask difficult questions. Now, I generally try to/do separate an artist’s personal life from what I think of their art. I can still listen to Phil Spector and I still like Beetlejuice. Part of this stems from my belief that you can never really know someone without, well, really knowing someone. Also, I think that A doesn’t take away from B.[ii] And, despite being quick to judge just about everything in life, I try to keep an open mind[iii] about people. But, sometimes I just can’t. Since watching Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?) I haven’t been listening to Nilsson. And to be clear I love the music of Harry Nilsson. The range on Nilsson Schmilsson is incredible. His singing on his cover of “Without You” is chilling. I even think his work on Popeye is amazing.[iv]
But, lately I just don’t want to listen to his music. The reason: Harry Nilsson may have been a bad father. According to this film, he was a loving and devoted father—to his second family. Nilsson, on a trip to Ireland, met his third wife and future mother to six of his children, Una. Nilsson and his second wife separated, largely it seems, because Nilsson liked alcohol more than being a father or husband. In the film, Nilsson’s drinking is never discussed in relation to his home life, only in relation to having “fun” with John Lennon and others. Una is, understandably, quiet about this matter. Nilsson’s response to his second divorce was the underproduced song “You’re Breaking My Heart” and its juvenile refrain of “Fuck You.” Among the film’s interviewees are Nilsson’s eldest son Zachary. The moments with Zachary are among the most interesting for me and, along with the scenes with Nilsson Schilsson producer Richard Perry,[v] are the closest we get to learning who Nilsson may have been. These moments are also the most heartbreaking. First, because Zachary is so sad. Second, because, despite his pain, his love for his father is clear.
For me the greatest problem with the film is its adherence to the simplistic narrative of the male American rock star. In this narrative, talent doesn’t just absolve the sin—it erases it. Family, love and responsibility just get in the way of having a good time and making great music. In reality, this might be true. Doing bad things can bring success. According to this narrative, the way that Harry Nilsson may have treated people, including the ones he was supposed to protect and respect, is just fine as long as he wrote songs that people like. In the film Walk the Line there is an exchange between Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian, played by the now-popular Ginnifer Goodwin. Vivian is upset at John for never being around, not taking care of their kids let alone spending time with them, not spending time with her, etc.. As I recall, she doesn’t even bring up the drug abuse/always cheating on her thing. John’s response is “But I want to have fun and play the guitar.” Instead of treating this moment as a grown man’s pathetic shirking of responsibility, we are supposed to be on John’s side. Our assumed reaction is to think Vivian is an overbearing nag who doesn’t respect John’s need to make music. Maybe if you decide to make babies, you don’t get to make as much music as you like. The onscreen Vivian is anxious about John’s success. What if he doesn’t make it? Who’s going to buy diapers then? The only possible transgression that John is in danger of making is not becoming successful. If he makes it, then how he did it is okay. And what if he doesn’t? Given how many wannabe rock stars actually become non-wannabe rock stars, maybe Vivian has a reason to doubt, even if, in hindsight, Johnny Cash could afford diapers.
Later in the movie John becomes a survivor because he is able to overcome his addiction to drugs and finally marry one of the women he has an affair with[vi]—we are supposed to interpret this as true love. And maybe it is. The film version of Johnny Cash (and probably the real one) had a difficult life that I can only begin to understand. Vivian, on the other hand, assumedly becomes a single mother of four in 1960s America and is never heard from again.
It is probable that if Johnny Cash took better care of his first set of kids the world would have less great music. Johnny Cash’s seeming neglect of his children doesn’t directly affect my life. I have no stake in it. What I do have a stake in is his renditions of The Ballad of Ira Hayes, Look at Them Beans and One Piece at a Time. I like those songs. I like listening to those songs. Now, I don’t know what the real kids of Johnny Cash think about their father. They are entitled to judge him and love him and know him, for better or worse, and I am not. Ultimately, the issue for me isn’t whether or not Harry Nilsson, Johnny Cash or John Lennon or any other rock star were good fathers. Nilsson had the right to do what he wanted, it is none of my business and “Jump into the Fire” is one of best songs ever recorded. However, I do take issue with the way that fatherhood is represented in popular media. In films like Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?), Walk the Line and Ray, fatherhood is either invisible or presented as an obstacle on the way to celebrity. I think fatherhood is important. I think fatherhood is complicated. And I think representations of real-life fathers should do a better job of saying so.
[i] Nilsson co-wrote the Spector produced song “Paradise”—one of my favourite songs.
[ii] Look at the personal lives of some of the people who have fought/are fighting for civil rights.
[iv] Combining two of my favourite things—Shelley Duvall and songs by Harry Nilsson.
[v] Perry, who is clearly smart, talented and perceptive, makes the case for the strongest thesis about Nilsson—that he placed the most value on things with the lowest value.
[vi] As I recall we don’t see any of his other affairs.