A New Documentary Asks WHO Is HARRY NILSSON?

WHO IS HARRY NILSSON (AND WHY IS EVERYBODY TALKING ABOUT HIM?) (Dir. John Scheinfeld, 2006)

The long silly title of this film obviously pokes fun at the fact that these days not many people are likely to know who Harry Nilsson was.

But if you are a fan of the Beatles, the Monkees, or Monty Python you are likely to have at least a tiny inkling of the late semi-legendary singer songwriter.

Also you may know his Grammy winning cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” (the theme song for MIDNIGHT COWBOY) or his hit singles “Without You” and “Coconut”.

Nilsson’s soundtrack for Robert Altman’s POPEYE (1980) may also be familiar.

This fascinating and fast paced documentary tells Nilsson’s story extremely well taking us from his impoverished beginnings through flirtations with fame and sadly concluding with his despondent later years when his voice was shot and his stock at an all time low.

It was a career doomed by drinking and drugs as well as his being terrified to sing his songs live.

A roster of famous friends including Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, the Smothers Brothers, Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, Terry Gilliam and many others appear in interview segments to praise Nilsson as well as bury him with their frank depictions of the unruly talent.

But it’s the music that makes the movie roll. We get a good sense of how Nilsson was a one man Beatles – a notion confirmed in the late ‘60s when a “White Album” era John Lennon named him as his favorite “group”, not “performer” mind you.

Hundreds of photographs and lots of juicy archival footage are hauntingly serenaded by Nilsson’s smooth croon and even in lip synched appearances on TV shows such as “Beat Club” Nilsson’s charisma shines through.

Nilsson’s rowdy friendship with ex-Beatle Ringo Starr is given a lot of weight – their projects SON OF DRACULA and the popular children’s cartoon “The Point” are touched upon nicely.

With its conventional narrative WHO IS HARRY NILSSON doesn’t break any new musical bio doc ground, but with its wealth of great material, focused scope, and loving detail, that’s fine by me.

It’s a purposeful portrait of a jewel in the rough – a tortured artist with an affecting spirit even when he was scrapping the bottom of the barrel.

Sadly this film never made it theatrically to the Raleigh area. Fortunately it is now available on DVD and streaming on Netflix Instant.

More later…

Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS May Be The Most WTF Movie Experience Ever

To the elation of film buffs and 70’s art rock fans all over, MGM has just released a new 35 MM print of Frank Zappa’s 1971 freak-fest flick 200 MOTELS. The film played earlier tonight as part of the “Cool Classics @ The Colony” series at the Colony Theater in Raleigh and I was very anxious to see it for the first time. When I was much younger I went through a bit of a Zappa phase, yet while I collected dozens of his albums somehow I never saw 200 MOTELS. I had wondered what it was exactly. Well, after seeing it tonight I see that it’s not a concert film, though there are long sequences that make it seem otherwise, it’s not a tour documentary, and it sure isn’t any kind of musical with a linear narrative. Actually I’m still trying to figure out what the Hell it is.

Despite that it was “written” (that’s highly debatable), and directed by Zappa with wall-to-wall music of his composing, it’s really more his band’s – The Mothers Of Invention’s movie than his ultimately. The faces and voices of Martin Volman (Flo), Eddie (Howard Kaylan) and Jeff (Martin Lickert) dominate the screen with random pop-ins from ex-Beatle Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf who is oddly outfitted as Zappa. There’s also Keith Moon (infamous drummer from The Who) as a nun, Theodore Bikel as the Devil, and famous Hollywood groupies Pamela Miller, Miss Lucy Offerall and Miss Janet Neville as, well, groupies.

To complain that this movie is a mess misses the mark because it’s a mess by design. the comedic musical numbers like “Mystery Roach” and the Indian of the group (that’s how hi introduces himself) Jimmy Carl Black’s over-the-top redneck vocal on “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” are surrounded by the sketchiest of sketches involving the oppresive “Centeville community” and a lengthy discourse on the “Penis Dimension”. Then there’s a cartoon called “Dental Hygiene Movie” that may stand as one of the most amusing bits in the heavy mist of this wild offkilter “happening” disguised as a movie. Or is it a movie disguised as a “happening”? I dunno.

Noted as the first feature-length movie to be shot on video tape and later transferred to 35mm Technicolor film, 200 MOTELS is on surface a trippy experience. It sinks in though pretty early on that Zappa didn’t not partake in, in fact distained, the psychedelic drugs of the era. The footage is screwed around with considerably – sped up slowed down with certain actions repeated over and over, but not in a way that would soothe hippies’ mindsets whatever their level of chemical enhancement.

In his 3 star review (from the original release), Roger Ebert said that it was “not the kind of movie you have to see more than once. It is the kind of movie you can barely see once.” I have to agree with that. Though I know that this has appeared to be a less than stellar review, 200 MOTELS is still somehow an experience I recommend. It’s like some half remembered dream in which Monty Python silliness is filtered through Sid and Marty Kroft imagery with what sounds like Spike Jones discovering funk blaring overhead. If a circulating print comes to your area – check it out. Sure, it’s dated and weird as all get out, but it’s still an extremely worthwhile demented diversion.

More later…