It was announced yesterday that the longest-delayed documentary with the worst title in the history of motion pictures has found a distributor. John Scheinfeld‘s Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is He Saying Terrible Things About Me)?, which had its debut four and a half years ago at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, has been acquired by Kino Lorber.
The widely praised doc will get a 9.10 Cinema Village opening in Manhattan along with (one presumes) another in Los Angeles on or near the same date, followed by a DVD debut (complete with an extra 93 minutes of footage) on 10.26.
I’m sorry…I got the title wrong. It’s actually Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?. The wording doesn’t matter, of course, because a title with 18 syllables doesn’t work any way you slice it. Scheinfeld’s film should have been called Everybody’s Talkin’ — the title of Nilsson’s most famous song, or at least among those who’ve seen and/or know anything about John Schlesinger‘s Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (’69), which Nilsson’s tune became a kind of theme song for.
Why did it take Scheinfeld four years to put a deal together? Music rights. The film uses 48 Nilsson tracks that are owned by Sony, and all along Scheinfeld had been trying to persuade the company to grant the rights gratis and then use the film as a promotional tool to market the Nilsson catalogue, The public has mostly forgotten about Nilsson (aside from mostly boomer-aged buffs), but a soundtrack CD released along with Scheinfeld’s doc might have re-ignited interest.
But a lack of visionary leadership at Sony BMG — initially under the stewardship of CEO Rolf Schmidt-Holtz from early ’06 to August ’08, and then for roughly a year at the Sony Music Entertainment after Sony BMG was dissolved — kept this from happening. Certain business affairs execs felt that gratis music rights would set a bad precedent. Scheinfeld describes the atmosphere at Sony from early ’06 through mid ’09 as a “chaotic landscape” and a “black hole…no one person seemed to be able to make a decision.”
Things finally loosened up last fall when SME honcho Adam Block came to the conclusion that the film could “be a great advertisement of Harry’s catalogue” if distributed.
Early last December I briefly discussed Who Is Harry Nilsson? with Jeff Bridges (a huge Nilsson fan) during a Crazy Heart press party. We agreed it was a shame that Scheinfeld’s doc, which Bridges had seen at the Santa Barbara Film Festival debut, was apparently doomed to obscurity. I went home and voiced this feeling in a piece called “Homeless Forever.”
Scheinfeld told me this morning that reading this article “kind of spurred us on” — i.e., acted as a kind of kick in the pants. Whatever the truth of this, I’m glad that he and his film are finally out of the woods.
37 months ago I wrote following in an article called “Nilsson Doc Stranded“:
“At the ’06 Santa Barbara Film festival — sixteen and a half months ago — I ran my first piece about John Scheinfeld‘s Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?. I started out both liking it enormously and disliking it — I couldn’t get past the depressing aspects of a story about another ’60s-era rock musician self-destructing, but I was deeply moved by the music and the obvious love and care that Scheinfeld put into his film.
“For whatever reason a distribution deal never happened. A logical suspect, Sony Pictures Classics, never bit despite Sony BMG owning the Nilsson catalogue, which would allow for an obvious cross-promotion potential.
“I don’t know what the problematic particulars may be, but a film as good as this one deserves to be seen. It’s a profound insult to Nilsson, his legacy and his thousands of fans that the best this doc can hope for is some cruddy straight-to-video deal. The man was one of the greatest songwriter-singers of the ’60s and early ’70s — what’s the problem?
“Obviously Nilsson never attained Beatles-level fame, and obviously Scheinfeld’s doc has a limited commercial potential. But for the film to fail to get any kind of deal whatsoever is absurd. Sounds like somebody’s being obstinate or unrealistic or both, and that other parties are asleep at the wheel.”
Scheinfeld’s doc, which has been refined since I last saw it, will have a special screening in Manhattan on 8.13 at 92Y in Tribeca.