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.”
Released in 2010, but not widely seen, considering the enormous difficulty it was to get ‘Who is Harry Nilsson’ ready and screened (and the extremely positive audience reaction when people actually did see it), it’s no surprise that Scheinfeld has positive thoughts on digital distribution outlets such as SundanceNOW and the possibilities of reaching a wider audience. “I’m excited about anyone that pays attention to documentaries: it is a superior art form that can tell all kinds of stories, and if it’s done well it can move people, entertain people, and present complex stories and relationships in a way that the best narrative films can’t,” the director declared. “I think VOD and online streaming is where the future of entertainment lies. Studios and distributors haven’t quite found a way to monetize the online area, but VOD is a wonderful way to sample things that you might not ordinarily buy on DVD.” In regards to the niche documentary genre, the filmmaker has hope that more people will check out things they normally wouldn’t. “For documentaries it gives more access; a lot of them have a tendency to get a little bit of attention at first and then just disappear. Maybe they’re topical and maybe a few years later they’re not as resonant so it might fade away. But something like SundanceNOW tapes them up there and gives them a constant opportunity to be discovered.” He laments the showbiz attitude that shoos away documentaries for their lack of profit, but he assures that there is a passionate audience for there — you just have to reach them.
Having already directed the documentaries “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” the director has plenty on his plate, including an Elvis Presley biopic, “Fame & Fortune,” and a documentary that is nearly in the can: “IHYD: I Hope You Dance – The Story of a Song That Moves the World.” “It’s about one particular tune that has changed peoples’ lives. It’s five true stories about people whose lives were transformed by a song called ‘I Hope You Dance’ by Lee Ann Womack. These people heard it when they were going through some serious problems in life, so this film is a very uplifting spiritual thing. I also interview Graham Nash and Brian Wilson in the doc as singer-songwriters who have written songs that touched millions of people around the world — what does it mean to create something that does that? And they kind of help put that in perspective.”
After that is hopefully a film about John Coltrane, and somewhere down the line Scheinfeld would like to tackle two other prominent musicians in documentary portraits: Paul McCartney and Cat Stevens. “I always felt that people don’t fully understand the depth and extent of McCartney’s artistry. They think of the poppy songs and fall into the bag that John was the serious one and Paul was the light one. To me that’s never been true and someone ought to make a documentary about that and track his path as an artist,” he explained. “And Stevens, now known as Yusuf, dropped out of the music business in the ’70s because of his Islamic faith. He then came back to record secular music in 2006 and 2009. That’s just a fascinating story of a very sensitive, thoughtful singer-songwriter who touched so many peoples’ lives in the late ’60s and 7’0s and then gave it all up for faith. So like, what kind of strength does it take in an artist to do that? And what would bring him back?”
Check out “Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?” on SundanceNOW. Here’s the trailer below.