Documentary fanatics should hopefully already be familiar with SundanceNOW’s terrific DOC CLUB program (for the uninitiated, it’s a carefully curated VOD/streaming program by doc connoisseur Thom Powers of Toronto International Film Festival, DOC NYC, Miami Film Festival and others). October is “Music Month" on SundanceNOW and one of the documentaries prominently featured is John Scheinfeld’s excellent tribute to Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter/still-underrated musician Harry Nilsson titled “Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?” An informative tribute to a talent that tried like hell to stay out of the spotlight, the filmmaker’s effort is an enjoyable one and is near-guaranteed to propel you towards Nilsson’s discography.
“I was a tremendous fan of Harry in my college days, but didn’t really know too much of his story,” Scheinfeld explained. “When the estate came to me and asked if I was interested in doing a film about him, I read a bit more into him and I found that it was just a compelling story that needed to be told.” Loved by The Beatles and best buds with both Ringo Starr and John Lennon (the latter two did an album together, Pussy Cats), Nilsson was an elusive songwriter with some considerable hits, whether you knew he was responsible for them or not. For instance, film buffs will recognize his voice in the classic John Schlesinger joint “Midnight Cowboy”. But even after given the green light, the filmmaker relays that it was a long, arduous haul to get the documentary to the screen. “It took awhile to get it going, and it was a considerable process to get it off the shelf and into theaters," Scheinfeld said. "We took to calling this ‘the little film that could.’ Even now: we did a few film festivals and ran into some clearance issues which we got through, we opened NY and LA and then eventually other places.” Still, once people do see it, they tend to fall head-over-heels. “Harry seems to have touched a chord with people. I’ve never had better reviews for a film. To this day, I don’t think a week goes by where I don’t get emails or Facebook messages from people who just discovered the film and really loved it and went out and bought Harry’s music. It’s such a wonderful feeling.”
One of those people, in fact, was good old Jeff Bridges. “We were showing this in Santa Barbara in a packed theater and he was right in the middle row. About twenty minutes into the Q&A he excused himself, walked through all these people, ran through the aisle and exited the theater,” Scheinfeld said with a belly-laugh. “I was taken aback... did I say something?” But it turns out that Harry had charmed the “Tron” actor so deeply that he couldn’t wait to dive into his body of work. “At the end of the screening I was outside of the theater and Jeff came rolling down the sidewalk, arms filled with Harry’s CDs. There was a Borders next to the theater and he was going to Japan in two days and he just wanted the music on the plane with him -- he just had to have it.“ Yup, Bad Blake from “Crazy Heart” is probably humming “Ten Little Indians.”