Wild About Harry

As the film world's foremost peddler of nostalgia-driven baby-boomer romanticism, Nora Ephron is acutely aware of the crucial role that music plays in selling her three-hanky tales. The soundtrack to her 1993 megahit Sleepless in Seattle not only enhanced that film's sentimental mood, it sold more than two million copies and ultimately bolstered the movie's box office receipts.

The handicap that Ephron increasingly faces in compiling an appropriate soundtrack is that most of the good boomer music has been used. Over the last two decades the vaults of Sixties and Seventies pop have been raided by films to such an extent that when people hear a Four Tops song they're more likely to visualize Glenn Close and Mary Kay Place bumping in the kitchen than Levi Stubbs tearing it up at a Motown revue.

For Sleepless Ephron got around this potential problem (as did Rob Reiner in the Ephron-penned When Harry Met Sally) by turning to prerock standards, focusing particular attention on the largely forgotten vocal charms of Jimmy Durante. For her latest effort, You've Got Mail, another romantic vehicle for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, she's spotlighting an artist who has solid boomer credentials (eight Top 40 hits from 1969 to 1974) and a guest-star-laden tribute album, but who is rarely talked about these days and almost never considered when movie soundtracks are put together.

That artist, the late Harry Nilsson, is represented with four tracks on the You've Got Mail: Music from the Motion Picture, including an unlikely cover of his "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" by Sinead O'Connor. Although it probably won't send Nilsson Schmilsson soaring back up the charts, this film could be the strongest boost for the late singer's work since his career took an inexplicable nosedive in the mid-Seventies.

Even though Ephron reportedly spent countless hours searching for fresh material, much of the You've Got Mail soundtrack is predictable and unadventurous: an already tired Cranberries hit, an overly familiar Stevie Wonder chestnut, Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash," and a bland new song from Carole King. But the Nilsson connection stands out, partly because he's so inimitable, but also because he's been forgotten for so long.

If Nilsson's presence on a major film soundtrack feels like novelty in 1999, three decades ago it amounted to a sure bet. Nilsson's name was actually introduced to most people by his recording of "Everybody's Talkin'," a Fred Neil song featured in the movie Midnight Cowboy. It actually says much for the state of disrepair into which Nilsson's memory has fallen that he's mainly remembered either for that song or for being the guy who got drunk and unruly with John Lennon during the ex-Beatle's "lost weekend" in Los Angeles. Connoisseurs of TV Land may also know him as the composer of the catchy theme song to the sitcom The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Such footnotes aside, however, Nilsson's shadow seems all but invisible in 1999, a particularly strange development considering the estimable talent involved. Surely part of the problem is that Nilsson never really had a solid identity as an artist. Perhaps because his two biggest hits ("Everybody's Talkin'" and "Without You," most recently covered by Mariah Carey) were written by other people, he was generally not given much recognition as a songwriter. In truth he not only wrote most of his own material, but provided songs for artists as diverse as the Monkees, Three Dog Night, and the Ronettes. Also, because he rarely performed live, the astonishing purity and three-octave range of his voice was somewhat underappreciated. But Nilsson's perception problems go deeper than that. As his career developed, a sizable gap emerged between his musical metier as a singer of big ballads and writer of wistful pop nostalgia, and the image he fostered as a gonzo outlaw prone to rude adolescent humor.

The Nilsson that Ephron honors in You've Got Mail is the unabashed romantic who dared to be sentimental because he knew how much pain was locked behind the sentiment. So much of Nilsson's best early work pined for the idyllic childhood that he never had. His father left the family when Harry was young, a scar that apparently never went away. The power of his early songs comes from his insistence on returning to the days of his youth, as if singing about the Forties in America can help him rewrite his own history.

On the surface a tune like 1968's "Daddy's Song" might seem cloyingly sweet, but on closer inspection, it's really about the love he was denied when his father moved away. A more obvious device would have been to bathe the song's message in melancholia, but the bounciness of the tune only makes the hurt more cutting. As a statement of innocence lost, it blows away anything in the Eddie Vedder songbook.

The You've Got Mail soundtrack opens with "The Puppy Song," another of Nilsson's evocations of youth. Typical of Nilsson's late-Sixties work, it's a soft-shoe shuffle that sounds like it could have been recorded 30 years earlier. It's so sweet-sounding that it could easily be mistaken for a children's record, but beneath the surface, which is where Nilsson made his most effective statements, it expresses the need for a puppy as a way to combat the overwhelming loneliness of youth. This kind of subtlety is what made The Point!, Nilsson's soundtrack to an animated 1970 television film about prejudice and conformity (a community of people with pointy heads mocks the one boy with a round head) so enduring. On that album he revisited the theme of dog-as-child's-only-friend on the beautiful hit single "Me and My Arrow."

Nilsson's two other vocal contributions to You've Got Mail emphasize the major-league pipes that stirred John Lennon to call Nilsson his favorite American singer. The lush ballad "Remember" ranks among Nilsson's finest compositions, a song so timeless it's easy to assume that someone like Hoagy Carmichael or Cole Porter penned it. The sadness that Nilsson generally shielded so effectively is left naked here, as he assures himself: "Long ago, far away/Life was clear/Close your eyes." Even this consistently great vocalist rarely reached the finely nuanced heights heard on this song.

He came reasonably close with You've Got Mail's other big ballad, a faithful Nilsson rendering of "Over the Rainbow." This recording comes from a brief period (documented on 1973's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night) when Nilsson fancied himself a reinterpreter of vintage pop standards, even employing Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins to help out. "Over the Rainbow" is dogged by a schmaltzy string arrangement, and Nilsson doesn't really invest it with the level of feeling he brought to something like "As Time Goes By," but the dulcet grandeur of his voice overpowers most objections.

Nilsson the underrated songwriter is represented here by O'Connor's cover. The song shares much with "Everybody's Talkin'," hardly surprising because Nilsson actually submitted "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" for Midnight Cowboy but was beaten out by Neil's tune. The song, one of Nilsson's wittiest, gets an understated but effective treatment by O'Connor. Surely Nilsson would have appreciated the irony of this song finally making it into a film, with someone else handling the vocals.

If Nilsson's gifts are often overlooked, it may be because he appeared uncomfortable with his own abilities. By the early Seventies he seemed determined to lampoon his own romanticism. Caught up in the Nilsson Schmilsson persona (a hard-drinking, puerile prankster with an angel's voice) he nearly turned himself into a novelty act. Lyrics like "You're breaking my heart/You're tearing it apart/So fuck you" or "I'd rather be dead/Than wet my bed" might have made him look hip to easily impressed adolescent boys, but the words were a far cry from the genuine compassion of his first four albums.

In fairness Nilsson always had a twisted streak, as evidenced by his early classic "Cuddly Toy," which was purportedly about a gang-bang episode. But early in his career his outrageousness was well cloaked and more appealing. The more in-your-face his sense of humor became, the less likable it was.

After releasing the Lennon-produced Pussy Cats album in 1974, Nilsson seemingly descended into a creative funk from which he never recovered. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 52, he had been silent for so long that few felt the loss.

So even if it's only a half-hearted tribute, You've Got Mail offers the first opportunity in ages for Nilsson to be heard by a mass audience. Unfortunately Harry Nilsson won't be around for his own career rehabilitation.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gilbert Garcia