Friday, December 28, 2012
Not pictured: singer and songwriter Scott ("If You're Going to San Francisco...") MacKenzie, film critics Andrew Sarris (of the auteur theory) and Judith Crist, actors Larry Hagman and Phyllis Diller, writer and director Nora Ephron, art critic Hilton Kramer, British actor Victor Spinetti (Help!),singers Etta James and Andy Williams, artist LeRoi Neiman. May they rest in peace and their work live on.
Thursday, August 09, 2012
Seen last year on pay cable, George Harrison Living in the Material World, a film directed by Martin Scorsese is now widely available on DVD. It’s a two disk set divided into the two parts seen successively on HBO for a total of 229 minutes. There are a few extra scenes and interview snippets as special features, which are nice but not much. I especially felt the absence of some full song performances as were included in the DVD of Scorsese’s film on Bob Dylan. His music grows more impressive with time. [The image above begins and ends this film.]
Scorsese makes some strange cuts and a few significant omissions, but the major biographical elements are there: the Beatles and post-Beatles music, Harrison’s spiritual journey, his invention of the all-star benefit with the Concert for Bangla Desh, and his involvement in film (he mortgaged his house to finance Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.) It’s a rounded if impressionistic portrait. While interviewees speak of the necessarily intense bond among the Beatles, Scorsese shows images of hysterical fans and the rest of the crazed context. Eric Clapton recalls how magical they were as a group, even moving in ways special to themselves.
[Photo above: Olivia Harrison with director Martin Scorsese] On second viewing, some of the rhyming scenes emerge: for instance, early in the film, Dahni relates a recent dream in which he asks his father where’s he’s been and George replies, “I’ve been here all the time.” Much later, Tom Petty describes a phone conversation the day after Roy Orbison’s death (he, Orbison, Harrison plus Bob Dylan and Jeff Lyne were then recording as the Traveling Wilburys) in which Harrison said, “he’s still around."
His humor was also an evident trait, one which rates at most memorable to Paul McCartney. Olivia describes in detail the horrific attack that injured both she and George, who was stabbed. But as he was being taken away on a stretcher, he noticed a workman who had just that day joined the crew helping him with landscaping. George said to him, "So how do you like the job so far?"
Two other moments stand out in this companionable film. After John Lennon’s death, a reporter observed to George that Lennon “was no angel.” “No, he wasn’t,” Harrison said, “but he was, as well.” “Was he?” “Yeah.”
Son Dahni, Olivia and producer George Martin
Olivia, Scorsese and Paul McCartney.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Robin Gibb died last week. Partly because of the coincidence of Donna Summer's death a few days earlier, the Bee Gees retrospectives emphasized their disco period. While they sold a lot of records with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and for a few later albums, I was listening to the Bee Gees from their U.S. debut in 1967.
Their second album--Horizontal-- came out that winter, along with Magical Mystery Tour, the Stones' Her Satanic Majesty Requests, Disraeli Gears, Strange Days, Vanilla Fudge, more Airplane, Hendrix... Their sound and songs were part of the soundtrack of my senior year of college, and the house at 169 West First Street, otherwise known as the Galesburg Home for the Bewildered.
They had the Beatles patina, but more like the next Beatles thing. Maybe because their first hit was "New York Mining Disaster 1941" they were given to anthemic surrealism, mixed in with rhythm and blues flavored radio songs like their second hit and one of their most enduring songs, "To Love Somebody." The surreal flow of their lyrics grabbed me. Not only pondering poetic possibilities under the influence of this or that, but feeling the emotional undertow, and the feeling expressed in those voices. I mean, who else could get away with a poignant memory song like "Red Chair, Fade Away?" Or the odd U.S. hit "Holiday?"
"Horizontal" went even stronger towards a novelistic surrealism, a poetic freedom that no one else dared. It opened with two slow songs, "World" and "The Sun Will Shine," with lines that barely related and lyrics that wandered, quoted an old ballad, observed, expressing a youthful yearning and yet a larger melancholy of time. Even a lovely song like "Day Time Girl" made more poetic than literal sense. But they still had the ability to construct tight pop tunes for radio hits, like "Birdie Told Me," although the enduring hit from the album, "Massachusetts," also struggles to stay between the lines. Nevertheless, they had the sound.
But among the avid listeners of most of the people and bands I named from 67-68, mine was a minority view. The Bee Gees were mostly dismissed. But I didn't care much. I kept buying and listening to their albums. I played "Idea" in my single long, narrow room tacked onto a real building in Iowa City, as I tried to navigate the Writers Workshop and the draft, as well as, you know, relationships. I was such a Beatles fan that in that room I once fought off depression by going through the paperback novelization of the Beatles' movie "Help!" and correcting the dialogue, because I remembered it all from seeing the movie so many times. But I embraced the Bee Gees, too. I recall reading an interview with Robin Gibb who said he heard music everywhere--the sound of an airplane engine gave him the melody of "I Started a Joke," one of the hits from this album, along with "I've Gotta Get a Message to You." I understood that completely. And I also needed that other message: "Hold on, hold on."
By spring I was pondering their strange double album, "Odessa," with its red felt cover. Again, the tangled history of a disaster in the title song. The antic melodies, the wandering ballads. It was stranger than ever, maybe too ambitious, but something about it held me--some feeling within the excesses, some sense of a meaning just obscured.
But then came Saturday Night Fever, and they were officially disco. I bought their "Spirits Having Flown" and "Children of the World" albums, I liked them, I was happy for their success, but when I unloaded almost half of my record collection before heading for the West Coast, those records didn't make the trip.
It is incredible to realize that they made all this music in about 12 years. Only five individuals or groups had sold more records--more than Michael Jackson, not to mention the Stones, the Doors, Dylan, etc. by the time they were inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. They were lucky to have a very persistent and not unhucksterish promotor, Robert Stigwood, right from their late 60s beginning. He packaged and repackaged them endlessly even in the lean years. His judgment wasn't always great--witness their greatest flop, the Sergeant Pepper movie. But he stuck with them.
Robin's twin brother Barry is the last Bee Gee left. The Wikipedia entry mentions a possible movie in development about their lives, produced by Steven Speilberg. For people like me who were there for it all, the Bee Gees were part of the soundtrack that kept us going. A bunch of their songs will haunt me for the rest of my days. Their classic songs that have been recorded by others will stay in the pantheon. And their harmonies will remain unique, lifting up those lonely days.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Sid Caesar was a brilliant comedian in so many ways. He was verbally adept--one of his most famous skills was the ability to "doubletalk" in foreign languages: to make what he said sound like Italian or French and also make it funny. He was a physical comedy genius, who used his whole body, including his eyes and eyebrows. One standard feature of his shows was the pantomime, in which he and a partner (Imogene Coca was the best) would do an entire scene without speaking. But he also used his voice as an aspect of physical comedy. He was musical. He had the timing that could turn parody into pathos and back again.
|the famous "From Here to Eternity" parody|
I was a child when Sid Caesar was a fixture on television, but I watched him whenever I could. I could stay up later on Saturday nights, but still, it might require me to be very quiet so my parents wouldn’t notice I was still up. I remember Your Show of Shows (1950-54), and the team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. I remember that she got her own show for awhile. But I more clearly remember Caesar’s Hour in the mid 50s, including individual sketches.
It's said that his brand of comedy began to fade when television outgrew New York and became national. His comedy was "too urban." But as a child I didn't see it that way. For instance, the foreign movie parodies he did, which Middle America wasn’t supposed to like because they never saw foreign films. We sure didn't have any in my small western Pennsylvania town. I didn’t see a foreign language film until college, but that didn’t stop me from seeing those parodies as funny. They were just funny, partly because they were strange. I’m sure knowing the movies made them funnier, but the level of satire wasn’t always that deep. They were just funny situations, and opportunities for Caesar to do his doubletalk, which doesn’t require knowing the language in question to appreciate it.
But some of what he did was relevant to where I lived--a new neighborhood just outside the small town limits, among other working class becoming middle class families-- and what I was seeing around me.. Caesar’s Hour had a regular segment called "the Commuters." The suburban flight that would transform New York and pretty much end New York theatre (leading to the Broadway for tourists of today) was introducing people to the new culture of suburbia. There were new manners, expected behaviors. These sketches—some lasting almost the entire hour—explored these in the Caesar way. For example, I clearly remember a moment in one from seeing it once as a child. The couples were out together at a restaurant. They were all sitting in a booth and talking. A waiter brought a salad bowl. Carl Reiner told Sid to “toss the salad, Bob.” Sid did one of his series of takes—he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. Carl kept talking to someone, only to say again, more insistently, “toss the salad!” So Sid tossed it up in the air, lettuce leaves falling on everyone.
Toss the salad” was a new concept to a city guy, probably from a poor immigrant family. It was part of middle class suburban manners. But it also happened to be a new concept to me. I was vaguely aware that the people on television were richer and more sophisticated than anyone I actually knew. So I saw it perhaps as something “ritzy” people said and did. But it also seemed possible that it was something I would need to know, or something I should know—something that adults knew.
When you’re a kid just about everything “adult” is strange-- tossing a salad as much as foreign movies. You spend a lot of time trying to imagine why adults do and say things, and what they mean. Sid Caesar’s humor was often based on exaggeration, and on taking something literally that wasn’t meant to be taken that way. It’s exactly the kind of humor that appeals to children, because we often make those mistakes, and we also often think adults are strange and don’t make much sense. Sid Caesar represented us.
Now the exaggeration in those sketches can also be appreciated for the variations, the lines of logic and the moments in which the logic jumps the tracks (the classic sketch "The Recital" is a good example.) But there’s still something wonderful about their kinship to the imagination of childhood. [continued in following posts]
|Writers for Caesar's Hour: (from left, front row) Gary Belkin, Sheldon Keller, Michael Stewart and Mel Brooks; (from left, back) Neil Simon , Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. (pbs/file 1956)|
Sid Caesar didn't do it all alone, of course. There were his brillian costars, such as Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray. And there were the writers--as brilliant a group of writers as ever wrote for one comedian's television shows.
Those writers, many of whom are individually famous (Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart) have also been immortalized on film (in My Favorite Year, which conflates Sid Caesar and Steve Allen) and especially on stage, in Neil Simon's play Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
I recently saw and wrote about a community theatre production, which led to research into the writers and their contribution to Sid Caesar history. The play is about a group of writers for a 1950s comedy-variety television show called the Max Prince Show, but it is based very loosely on the last year or so of Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar.
The play is set in the writers’ room of a weekly 90 minute comedy-variety series in 1953. The play’s characters are loosely based on the legendary writers who worked for Sid Caesar, but not all of them in the play worked on Your Show of Shows. Several joined later for its successor, Caesar’s Hour, a one hour show of mostly comedy that debuted in the fall of 1954.
The two characters in the play based most clearly on the real writers were the team that were there at the beginning of YSOS, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. “They set the tone for the whole show,” Carl Reiner said. They had written Caesar’s previous series, The Admiral Broadway Revue, which first teamed him with the now-legendary comedienne, Imogene Coca.
In the play, the character of Val Slotsky is based on Tolkin. Like Val, Tolkin was a Russian immigrant, by way of Canada. And like Val, he had a dour outlook, conditioned by pogroms in Russia. He trained as an accountant but entered show business through music. His first writing was composing songs and then bits to go with them. Larry Gelbart called him the “founding father” of YSOS, where he was head writer. Despite his years in North America, he had a heavy Eastern European accent, but he was highly literate, with a European sophistication and Old World manner.
The character of Carol Wyman is based slightly on Selma Diamond, who was on the staff of Caesar’s Hour and later became a brassy, gravel-voiced performer. But Carol is mostly based on Lucille Kallen, the only woman on the staff of YSOS. Kallen was famously allergic to the pervasive cigar smoke in the writers room. In the play, Carol complains that she has to keep her dresses in a humidor. Like Carol in the play, Kallen got pregnant during the run of the show, and the play has a kind of in-joke about that. Some reference is made to a writer being hired temporarily to replace Carol. Temporary replacements were in fact hired for Kallen—they happened to be Neil Simon and his older brother Danny Simon. By the time Kallen was ready to return, the show was over. (The play is narrated by “Lucas Brickman,” the Neil Simon stand-in. Brother Danny isn’t mentioned, and he would not follow Neil to Caesar’s Hour.)
Kallen had worked with Tolkin, first at a large Jewish resort in the Pocono Mountains, and then on the Admiral TV show. Kallen wrote especially for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as a couple, either in stand-alone sketches or for their regular segment, the Hickenloopers. She was a small woman in a room of large men, and sometimes had to stand on a couch and wave a red sweater to be heard. Reiner remembers her as very pretty, and concerned with preserving her femininity as a professional woman. She later wrote a novel with this theme, before becoming known to a different public as the author of the C.B. Greenfield mystery novels.
The play tends to nail each character with a defining characteristic and elaborates on it, sort of like a comedy sketch. But except for a few scenes it doesn’t really deal with the process of writing this show, nor the characteristic contributions of these writers. So the play doesn’t have much to say about Mel Brooks as a writer.
In an archival interview Larry Gelbart described Brooks’ method as creating whole routines, whereas Gelbart was used to throwing in an appropriate line or joke. With Mel, he said, it wouldn’t be “why does the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” Instead Mel “would become the chicken, then he’d play both sides of the road, and he’d cross himself, doing 18 choruses of something while he’s crossing it—nobody else does this. He’s the funniest writer—and chicken—in the business.”
One of Brooks’ specialties for Caesar was “the Professor”—an expert on something or other (sleep, archeology, etc.) being interviewed. Carl Reiner was first hired on the show as an actor to be the interviewer. Later the Professor would evolve into the 2000 Year Old Man, which Brooks himself did, with Reiner. It started Brooks’ performing career, which later contributed to the success of his movies.
Carl Reiner became one of the regular sketch actors on YSOS and informally one of the writers, especially for Caesar’s Hour. According to wikipedia, he was the prototype for the Milt Fields character in the play, but I’ve yet to see a reference to Reiner showing up for work in a matador’s cape and a French beret, as Milt does in the play.
As Larry Gelbart explains, comedy writing is based a great deal on improvisation, and Reiner was skilled and imaginative. He was also skilled at “doubletalk--” improvising dialogue in a foreign language with words that don’t necessarily mean anything but sound right, and also funny. Sid Caesar was the acknowledged master, but Reiner held his own in sketches like the satire on the Italian neorealist movie The Bicycle Thief, performed completely in fake Italian.
Reiner was probably with Sid Caesar the longest, and for a long while was identified with him. Though he’s had a career as a performer (most recently in the new Ocean’s Eleven series), he made his enduring mark with the Dick Van Dyke Show. It's remembered for introducing Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie, but Van Dyke as Rob Petrie worked on a comedy show based on the Sid Caesar shows. Rose Marie as Sally Rodgers was again based on Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond—though this time, more on the harsh voiced, one-of-the-guys Selma. Reiner also wrote and/or directed several of Steve Martin's early films, from the satiric (and Caesar-like) Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid to the classic romantic comedy All of Me.
The character of Brian Doyle is based on Michael Stewart, who (like Brian) was Irish, and who would go on to write for the theatre. He was a writer for Caesar’s Hour, where he had the role of the one who actually wrote down what the group had come up with—a role previously filled by Lucille Kallen and Joseph Stein on YSOS.
Another character that appears in at least the TV movie version of Laughter on the 23rd Floor is Harry Prince, based on Dave Caesar, Sid’s brother who appeared on Caesar’s Hour. But he’s not in the play, at least the version I saw produced.
At the center of it all was Sid Caesar. However he was much more the Max Prince character during the run of Caesar’s Hour. YSOS was controlled more by its director, Max Liebman, and Caesar wasn’t even the star at first. But by Caesar’s Hour, he ran the show.
As a creative performer, Sid Caesar was a comic genius. That’s only implied in the play, though the Marlon Brando’s Julius Caesar movie excerpt suggests one of his particular kinds of mayhem. He was also mercurial, with a growing dependence on alcohol and pills, as Max Prince. Caesar later conquered these dependencies.
An aside: the production I saw sort of makes fun of Max Prince’s saxophone playing. In reality, Sid Caesar started out professionally as a saxophone player. In the funniest sketch on the Sid Caesar Collection Vol. 1 DVD is Caesar as a progressive jazzman Progress Hornsby being interviewed on "Ominous" (parody of the interview program Omnibus.) At the end of it Caesar actually plays jazz saxophone. (The Progress Hornsby sketch on YouTube is different and not nearly as good.)
In the play the network wants to cut the Max Prince Show from 90 minutes to an hour, because it’s getting less popular. One reason is discussed: the television audience isn’t just New York anymore. The reach of television is growing—New York was its biggest audience, but new technologies enable broadcasters to reach farther into the Midwest and South. The urban-oriented humor wasn’t translating. There’s reference in the play to more popular shows being Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best.
But the play is set in 1953, and in fact these changes were a little further in the future, and didn't seem to influence the fate of the always popular Your Show of Shows. 39 original shows a year, each one live for 90 minutes, were broadcast from 1950 to the end of the 1954 season, on NBC every Saturday night from 9 p.m. to 10:30. Your Show of Shows ended partly because its stars wanted to do different shows. According to Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar himself wanted to do an hour show that concentrated on comedy, with less “jumping” as he called it, which meant dancing, or musical numbers in general. These were prominent on Your Show of Shows.
|Nanette Fabray and Sid|
But The Imogene Coca Show never found a stable identity, changing from a sitcom to a comedy sketch show back to a sitcom with an entirely different premise, all in one season. It wasn’t renewed for a second. Caesar’s Hour prospered however, and in 1956 moved back to Saturday night.
It was a hit series for several years, but Caesar reportedly saw the writing on the wall when The Lawrence Welk Show (which started in 1955) started getting higher ratings. Caesar's Hour ended its run in May 1957 (before Leave It To Beaver had begun.)
The Sid Caesar writers' room has become so legendary that the writers and the shows are routinely mismatched and remembered together. The play preserves some aspects, and neglects others. The physical set prescribed for this play is based on Neil Simon’s memory of the actual writers room for one of the Caesar series, which Sid Caesar praised for its accuracy on the original Broadway production’s opening night. The production I saw didn't attempt to mimic one of the actual room’s characteristics: the 39 or so pencils stuck in the acoustical tile ceiling, sent there by frustrated writers.
But the play doesn't fully give the flavor of what the experience might have been like for the writing staff. Just imagine the work week before each show aired on Saturday: Some of the show's regular features could be planned as early as the previous Friday, Lucille Kallen said, with writing started over the weekend. But basically the writing started on Monday, and had to be finished by Wednesday. For Caesar’s Hour, that meant four or five sketches.
Thursday the cast would get the show on its feet, and Friday they would do it for the director. Saturday was intense. The whole show would be done three times before air. The first time for blocking, the second a smooth rehearsal where cuts for time and changes were set, the third was full dress. Then it was done live for broadcast. Eventually it would be done once again, for broadcast to the West Coast. Then Sid Caesar would take everyone out, usually to a place called Danny’s Hideaway, for a Bacchanalian feast. Then they’d have Sunday with their families. But basically, the show was their life.
|Carl Reiner based The Dick Van Dyke Show partly|
on working for Sid Caesar
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Boomer Heroes who died in 2011 included these four exemplars. Two are a little too old to be technically in the boomer generation, but they represent their spirit.
Clarence Clemons was born about four years too soon to boom, but the Big Man was the soul of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. I saw them early on, when Clemons came out in a Santa suit for the band's version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Kara Kennedy was born in 1960. She is pictured receiving the Medal of Freedom award from President Obama on behalf of her father, Senator Ted Kennedy. Kara herself worked in politics, the media and for causes. She battled lung cancer until her premature death.
Steve Jobs was born in 1955, a middle-boomer visionary of the computer age. His influence on this rapidly changing present and on the future is hard to overestimate.
Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her environmental justice activism, as the founder of the Green Belt Movement. She also is a link from boomer aspirations to the future. May all their best work live on and grow. And may they rest in peace.
Among those we lost in 2011 are these pop culture figures from the 1950s: actor Delores Fuller (Ed Wood films), Elliott Handler (who named the Barbie Doll for Mattel, Joe Morello (drummer for the Dave Brubeck Quartet), actor James Arness (Gunsmoke), actor and icon Elizabeth Taylor, Carl Gardner (lead singer of the Coasters.)
Also lost in 2011 from the 50s: Randy Woods, impressario of Dot Records (Pat Boone, Fabian, etc.); actor Jane Russell; songwriter Jerry Leiber of Leiber & Stoller; tv writer Madelyn Pugh Davis, who concocted some of the most famous I Love Lucy scenes, including the wine stomping scene; Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelletes.
Among those lost in 2011 from the 1960s: Suze Rotolo, artist and Bob Dylan companion on the famous Freewheelin' album cover; student activist Carl Ogelsby; Owlsley Stanley, famed LSD and Grateful Dead impressario; Cliff Robertson, who played JFK in PT-109; director Sidney Lumet (Fail-Safe); Sargent Shriver, first Peace Corps director; Fred Shuttlesworth, Civil Rights activist (far left with Martin Luther King); actor Susannah York; filmmaker Ken Russell( The Who's Tommy).
Not pictured: filmmaker Richard Leacock (Montery Pop); musician Bert Jansch (Pentangle); musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron; Barry Feinstein (album cover photographer, The Times They Are A'Changin), rock impressario Don Kirschner, journalists Tom Wicker, Andy Rooney and Robert Pierpoint.
Not pictured: filmmaker Richard Leacock (Montery Pop); musician Bert Jansch (Pentangle); musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron; Barry Feinstein (album cover photographer, The Times They Are A'Changin), rock impressario Don Kirschner, journalists Tom Wicker, Andy Rooney and Robert Pierpoint.
Lost in 2011 from the 1970s: Elisabeth Sladen, beloved companion Sarah Jane Smith on Doctor Who; First Lady Betty Ford; Henry Morgan, Col. Potter on M*A*S*H; Ellen Stewart, founder of New York theatre's La Mama; actor Michael Sarrazin; Nixon impressionist David Frye; Peter Falk, who was Columbo.
Not pictured: filmmaker Peter Yates (Breaking Away); singer Phoebe Snow, guitarist and record producer Don DeVito (Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.)
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Tuesday, May 03, 2011
Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin About Him?) is the title of a movie, and now a DVD, by John Scheinfeld. The title is a paradox and a pun. The paradox is that Harry Nilsson is both famous and unknown (as someone says in the film, you either recognize the name right away or you have no idea who he is.) The pun refers to his most famous recording, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, a Grammy winner featured in the classic movie Midnight Cowboy.
Harry Nilsson was a musical force in the early 1970s as a singer and songwriter, though he never quite became a star. But as this DVD demonstrates, he did achieve a mythological status and musical immortality.
At one time or another I owned the first 10 of his 15 albums and I still have four: his first two from the late 60s (which brought him praise from the Beatles), his early 70s multiple-Grammy winner Nilsson Schmilsson and the notorious follow-up Son of Schmilsson. In my rock critic days I'm pretty sure I saw him at a record launch, probably for The Point. Though in the early 70s he was a phenomenon, in the mid-70s he became a notorious co-hellraiser with John Lennon and Ringo Starr. By the time a friend of mine who worked for Robert Altman’s film company played me a cassette of Nilsson’s demos for the 1980 movie Popeye, he was almost forgotten.
Even his career was a paradox. Though he did have hits that he both wrote and sang (“Spaceman,” “Jump Into the Fire,” the novelty classic “Cocoanut”) his biggest songwriting hits were sung by others (“One” by Three Dog Night) and biggest singing hits were written by others (“Everybody’s Talkin,’” “Without You”.)
Abandoned by his father, his mother had a hard time keeping the family together, and young Harry experienced real poverty. As a teen he even resorted to holding up a liquor store so the rent could be paid. By the age of 15, he was out on his own. He made his way to Los Angeles and worked his way up to assistant manager at the Paramount Theatre. When he was first becoming known, the story was simply that he “worked in a bank.” It sounded like he was some polite young teller, but in fact he was the supervisor for a data processing operation with 132 people that handled $200 million of checks a night.
He worked assidiously at making contacts as a songwriter and his talent was recognized early, though it was awhile before he got beyond jingles. His first break was selling a song to the Monkees, then one of the biggest acts in pop music. It was then that his agent told him he could quit the bank.
That first RCA album (Pandemonium Shadow Show) showcased both his songwriting and his singing. Right from the start he applied the multi-tracking techniques of the Beatles to his own voice, and became essentially the first one-person group by pioneering overdubbing. The Beatles publicist Derek Taylor heard one of his songs, bought many copies of his album and took them back to London. Soon Nilsson (he went by the one name) was getting phone calls from each of the Beatles in turn. John told a reporter that Nilsson he was his favorite American singer. Paul told the same reporter that Nilsson was his favorite American group.
His songs were deceptively mild and whimsical. But “1941” was an autobiography of his own abandonment. Still, no one was writing songs like this, and no one was singing like this either. On the DVD another famed singer and songwriter of the period, Jimmy Webb, calls him “the best singer of our generation.”
His second album Aerial Ballet contained two hits—his breakout “Everybody’s Talkin” (which didn’t become really big until Midnight Cowboy) and “One (is the loneliest number)”—a song inspired by the fatal monotone of a telephone busy signal—which became a hit for Three Dog Night.
Nilsson didn’t tour, and very seldom performed at all. His next albums were equally quixotic: the soundtrack to a children’s animated film he also wrote (The Point) and an album entirely of someone else’s songs—the then-unknown Randy Newman.
But he seemed to get back on the fast track again when he hooked up with producer Richard Perry. Their ambition was to create an album as good as the Beatles, and Perry would be his George Martin. Nilsson Schmilsson pretty much fulfilled that promise. It even had a big hit (“Without You”) written and recorded by Badfinger, a group nurtured by the Beatles ( and produced by George Harrison) who recorded for Apple. The album won several Grammys.
But his private life was troubled. A Catholic, he was torn up by his divorce, and found himself horrifically replicating his own childhood by leaving behind his young son. He was also a carouser who loved to involve his musician and show biz friends in epic benders. “He went 500 miles an hour,” said the Monkees Micky Dolenz, “till he stopped.”
His next album—Son of Schmilsson—was harder, edgier, and producer Perry didn’t like it. It ended their professional relationship. Then came the then-notorious hell-raising with Lennon (on the loose after splitting with Yoko, before they reunited) and Ringo. But in all this chaos, Harry walked into an ice cream parlor and fell in love. Strangely, she was the love of his life. They married happily and had six children.
After “Son of,” Nilsson took another unconventional turn and became probably the first rock singer to record standards of the 40s and 50s, which he did with conductor Gordon Jenkins. Even more than The Point, this was supposed to be evidence of his craziness. But it remains one of his most enduring recordings. He said that he was convinced that his voice was at a perfect point for him to do these songs, and listening to them it’s hard to argue.
Especially since he soon damaged that voice, partly through smoking and drinking, but also in trying to compete with Lennon in his scream therapy phase, leading to the uneven album Lennon produced, Pussy Cats.
When Lennon was murdered in 1980, Nilsson devoted himself to advocating for gun control. He continued to write and record, working on “Popeye” and other movie projects, and making more friends—many of whom are interviewed for this DVD, including Robin Williams, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle.
There was more drama to come, including near-bankruptcy when a manager stole virtually every penny he had. But he returned his family to financial security before he died of heart failure in 1993. He was only 52.
The movie gives Nilsson’s life a particular storyline, in what it includes and how it arranges it, and what segments of what interviews it provides. It’s not entirely limiting—there’s so much to ponder that viewers can follow their own alternate storylines.
But even better, there are more interviews and more from the interviews as DVD extras. There we hear more about Nilsson’s nobility of spirit—how he helped many people financially, with little prompting. We also get some alternate takes on things.
For example, the director Scheinfeld seems to take his cue from Richard Perry when he castigates Nilsson’s “Son of Schmilson” songs as so counter-commercial as to constitute a “death-wish.” Perry had expected “a lifetime of hits” from their continuing collaboration, but is particularly sarcastic about the abrasive and offensive to the pop audience lyrics of “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“you’re tearing it apart/so fuck you...”)
But in an extra interview it’s mentioned that at Nilsson’s graveside, George Harrison said that this was his favorite Nilsson song. And so Harrison led several of the superstars in attendance in singing Nilsson to his rest with his words, “You’re breaking my heart/you’re tearing it apart/so fuck you.”
It was always one of my favorites. Harry Nilsson, his first wife said, had trouble expressing anger (which is why, she thought, he gravitated to John Lennon, who had no such trouble.) When he finally did get anger and pain into the forefront of his music, his producer turned against him. But it was authentic. No doubt he made mistakes of excess. But his artistic decisions were usually exactly right, as his recorded legacy affirms.
After seeing this DVD I think of another of his songs, and the lyric “You can jump into the fire/but you can never be free.”