Article By Curtis Armstrong


Unearthing the "lost" Nilsson Documentary


The existence of a lost Nilsson documentary was completely unknown to me until early last year [1997]. I had called legendary producer Richard Perry to discuss with him the possibility of his involvement in a short film project I was hoping to put together as a tribute to Harry. Perry's response was tepid, but he agreed to discuss it again at a future date, when the film was a little closer to actually getting made. (The man hasn't spent years in Hollywood for nothing). I could feel a hang-up was imminent, so I asked one last question. I knew, I said, that the "I'd Rather Be Dead" session had been filmed. Did he have any idea what happened to that footage?


"Well, yeah," he replied. "It's part of the documentary."


I cleared my throat. "The ...ummm...?"


"Yeah," he continued. "The whole album was filmed."


"Do you ..." I asked, after a moment of silent prayer, "by any chance know what happened to this documentary?"


"I've got it," he answered.


Some weeks later, after subjecting the amazingly patient Perry to a relentless barrage of unseemly whining and begging, I found myself at his Hollywood home, a cold beer in hand, being treated to a private screening of Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?.


Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?


Nineteen seventy-one had been a heady year for Harry Nilsson. Nilsson Schmilsson was a world-wide hit and the success must have been all the sweeter as the album had been an audacious experiment. Known and loved by a small but growing number of fans as a pop classicist, loaded with sweetness and gentle irony, scatting around the luxurious orchestrations of his friend and mentor, George Tipton, Harry had gambled with a radical departure into post-Woodstock rock and roll, produced by the young, brilliant Richard Perry. Tipton's Pepper-esque arrangements were a thing of the past; the irony had turned cynical and more harshly funny. From the self-deprecating title, to the fuzzy cover shot of the disheveled singer clutching a hash pipe, to the breath-taking cacophony of the albums most controversial track, "Jump into the Fire," it was clear: Harry had slammed one door and opened another. The album's first single, "Without You" had become the biggest hit he would ever have. Earlier that year, he had appeared in his first television special for the British Broadcasting Corporation, a funny, inventive fifty minutes of Harry at his best -- solo; having only just plugged himself in, it was Nilsson un-plugged. Back in the States, Harry's animated fable, The Point! had proved a critical sensation, if a ratings disappointment, on it's broadcast as an ABC Movie of the Week. The Point!'s soundtrack album, narrated by Harry, was also garnering accolades while the release of Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, (his re-mix album) and Scatalogue, a dazzling montage of the best of his first five albums that was released to radio stations, rounded out an extraordinary year at any view.


In March, 1972, with Nilsson Schmilsson still on the charts and the bloom still on the rose, Harry and Richard returned to Trident Studios, London, to start work on a follow-up album with the already widely-publicized title, Son of Schmilsson. RCA, ecstatic over the response to Nilsson Schmilsson, offered their new stars, in Perry's words, "anything to make us happy".


Harry and Richard decided to do a documentary about the making of Son of Schmilsson, essentially producing and directing it themselves. And so it was that cameras rolled, documenting virtually every step of the recording of an improbable album. But, in addition to the studio jams, rehearsals, all-star session men and the endless, exhausting, exhilarating hours in the recording studio, the footage exposed something unforeseen: the dissolution of a valued collaboration and the beginning of a disturbing pattern of self-destructive behavior on Harry's part that would soon spiral out of control....


Indeed, when he and Richard met again on a recording stage some eight months after the sessions to record their tandem narration for the documentary, Harry was already losing interest. His self-described "side-project", A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night was preoccupying him and the John Lennon sessions were just around the corner.


Less than a year later, Son of Schmilsson and its attendant documentary must have seemed like ancient history to him. A scratch narration was recorded, but the project was shelved.


"Harry torpedoed the project," says Perry, simply.


Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? -- "a ludicrous title", Perry admitted recently -- is a work in progress, or a "rough cut". Scenes are missing, with dialogue or music playing over a blank screen; there are pops and jumps galore and the film itself is dark and grainy. The cut is a mess. But as a document of Nilsson at a critical point in his life as a man and artist, it is invaluable.


It opens with Harry walking the streets of London at night, describing in voice-over how he and Perry met (at a birthday party thrown by Phil Spector for his wife Ronnie) and how their mutual interests ("Laurel and Hardy, Sherlock Holmes, East Side Kids, Charlie Chan") had led to their initial pairing the year before.


Harry then ducks into the Trident Studios, losing the camera operator who is supposed to be following him.


Insofar as the film has a structure at all, it is built around the "I'd Rather Be Dead" session. The camera crew is sent on the bus to pick up the guest vocalists for the session: the Stepney and Pinner Choir #6, a group of harmonious pensioners who knew how to have a good time -- then, as always, an important pre-requisite to working with Harry.


"Originally," he tells us as the choir boards the bus -- very slowly -- "we were going to make it a surprise. You see a bus full of old people and every other few minutes we'd show you the bus and then cut to something else and the bus would be getting closer to the city and then there'd be a surprise at the end by seeing all the old people in the studio. But," he concludes, cheerily, "we're not gonna do that now; {we're} just gonna tell you exactly what's happening."


There follow numerous intercuts of this game group driving along in the bus, it all looking weirdly like something out of Magical Mystery Tour ("It was their day out," Harry explains).


Meanwhile, back at the studio, Harry and friends are working out various cuts for the album. One of the most striking of these vignettes is the first take of Harry performing "Remember (Christmas)," seated on the piano stool next to the late Nicky Hopkins.


Harry, a little tentative but sounding great, sings with lyrics in hand as the incomparable Hopkins picks out the delicate piece on the piano. Another sequence shows Harry running through a rough version of "You're Breaking My Heart" for his startled band. After years of familiarity with the notorious Son of Schmilsson version, it's startling to hear this unaccompanied pass and realize how much the song originally sounded like pure Randy Newman.


Another surprise is a terrific full band rehearsal of "What's Your Sign" -- a song which didn't appear until several years later (on Duit on Mon Dei); and the climactic "The Most Beautiful World In The World," with Harry mid-orchestra in bathrobe, singing live as Perry conducts, is a gem.


"Doesn't it just kinda make your heart melt?" asks a wistful Perry.


It does; though, strangely, Harry informs us that he intended the song to begin with the bridge, "Your mountains when you're mad; your rivers when you're sad; and those deep, blue seas, etc.", and that he only wrote the previous verse because Perry insisted. He seems, in his voice-over, still to think it would've been better his way.


There is a dark side to the fun and games. We see Richard -- clearly the older brother in this relationship -- trying valiantly to get Harry to stop smoking ... sort of. ("Don't smoke those, Harry ... look, I've got a menthol for you," he says, desperately; within two years, Harry would be hemorrhaging from the throat.)


In several scenes, Harry is clearly drunk. Indeed, he refers, on several occasions, to getting drunk as being a natural and essential part of the recording process.


Particularly painful is an extended sequence, disavowed by Perry, that shows Harry with Bobby Keys, Jim Horn, and Klaus Voormann, in 50's rocker outfits, trying to lip-sync "You're Breaking My Heart" in what was clearly intended to be a rock video. The six bottles of brandy reportedly consumed during the filming, however, had predictable results. Sharp differences of opinion had arisen between Harry and Richard regarding "You're Breaking My Heart," though they are downplayed in the narration. Harry shrugs off the entire controversy as old news; while Richard, after noting that radio stations around the country only played the song after making their own edits, says tersely, "Probably coulda been a big hit."


If the film is any indication, Harry's nerves were in shreds during the Son of Schmilsson sessions. His performance is wildly erratic, ranging from the intoxicating ("Remember (Christmas)," "The Most Beautiful World In The World," and "What's Your Sign") to the just plain intoxicated (a god-awful run-through of "The Lottery Song" and the interminable "You're Breaking My Heart"). Some eight months later, while recording his narration, this sometimes embarrassing inconstancy is even apparent to Harry, who blames everything on the presence of cameras in the studio; forgetting that the documentary had been his idea in the first place.


Perry attributes his friend's mercurial behavior to the recent dissolution of his marriage. Whatever its cause, his nervousness occasionally manifested itself in peculiar ways. During the "I'd Rather Be Dead" sessions ("a very nervous day for me") Harry, awaiting the arrival of the Stepney and Pinner Choir, became so depressed and anxious that Perry was obliged to take him across the street to a tailor for a new suit. This whimsical therapy seems to have done the trick, though it delayed Harry's reappearance until after the choirs' arrival, and even then Harry describes himself as "... scared to death."


It's clear that the "I'd Rather Be Dead" session was a traumatic one for Harry, for reasons probably known only to himself. But it would be worth it. This sequence is the high point of Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?.


"I don't think," muses Perry, "we'll ever see another session that will even come close to resembling this one as long as we work in a studio."


A fair bet. The studio was festooned with balloons, streamers and flowers and the sherry flowed ... well, like wine. Images abound: Harry, in paper hat and carnation, sings the lead; four ladies pose for the cameraman as if he's taking a snapshot of them and can't imagine why he doesn't press the shutter ("Wot's 'e waitin' for, Christmas?"); one woman gives the camera a little flash, to the scandalized laughter of her friends; another slow dances with Harry during a playback; yet another saucily propositions the cameraman -- in fact, there's quite a lot of flirting going on. ("The second from the left," reveals Perry at one point, "had a thing for Harry.")


The women loosen up to an extraordinary extent while the men, looking awkward and confused, remain stiff as boards.


And then, there's Old Tom. It was during a playback that Harry and Richard heard a strange squeaking noise. Over and over they played it and couldn't for the life of them figure out what was causing it, when Klaus Voormann, whom Harry has described as having ears "like nothing on Earth", said "Sounds like somebody's squeaky wooden leg."


Harry and Richard were now faced with the delicate task of going into a room of old people and saying that somebody's noisy wooden leg was screwing up their takes. They finally got up the nerve and asked, very politely, if anyone present had a squeaky wooden leg.


"I do," piped up Old Tom. Though the narration doesn't go into further details, it can be assumed that either Tom kept very still for the remainder of the session, or that someone oiled him.[1]


It was Old Tom's 85th birthday, Harry informs us and, as it happens, the old gentleman contributed more to Son of Schmilsson than a great story. As the choir were shuffling off to their bus at the end of the session, Old Tom came squeaking past. "Well," he said to Harry and Richard, "See you next album."


Harry knew a good sign off when he heard one. "See you next album, Richard," he says over the swelling chorus at the end of "The Most Beautiful World In The World."


"Good bye!" *


Goodbye, indeed. There would be no next album. Richard's rebellious younger brother was leaving home for good.


The rediscovery of this film came about as the result of a bizarre coincidence. Richard Perry had never seen the rough cut of the film, nor had he heard anything further about its prospects after the day that he and Harry had spent recording their narration. He moved on and had little or no contact with Harry afterwards. (In fact, he expressed surprise to hear Harry had finally recorded "What's Your Sign.") Then one day, a dozen years ago, or so, he had attended "the one and only football game I've ever been to in my life." After the game, he had been with friends in the locker room when he was approached by a man who recognized him and said that he worked for Harry's company, Hawkeye Entertainment. The man asked Perry if he'd ever seen Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?.


When Perry said he hadn't, the man promised to send him a copy and a week later it arrived.


The excitement of the discovery of a "lost" Nilsson documentary is tempered slightly by the state of the existing cut. The movie jumps all over the place; editorially, it's positively squirrelly -- the sort of film in which a rehearsal of "Spaceman" and a sequence in which Harry does imitations of his session-men are accorded equal importance. The inclusion of scenes like the latter give the film a jokey, home-movie quality that undermine its intentions -- to show how an album is made. Most frustrating of all was the decision to lay narration in the middle of, and sometimes throughout, musical numbers. Scarcely a single song is heard beginning to end, and all are interrupted by interpolations by the two principals. No one is interviewed; the camera, in that tight little space, never really seems to get close to the players. There is no focus -- no objective eye that would help us sort the wheat from the chaff. And yet, there is a movie here. The "Remember (Christmas)" sequence, cutting between Nilsson and Hopkins at the piano, wreathed in cigarette smoke -- both dead far before their time -- and freeze-framed faces of the elderly Choir on the bus ("She's a little scared," says Harry tenderly about one woman who sits a little apart from the rest), show what the documentary could have been.


And, happily, still could be. Last fall, the master copy of the film, with its irreplaceable narration, was discovered, along with 135 reels of uncut footage, in an RCA vault in Indianapolis. The film was subsequently moved to the RCA New York Archive. A re-cut is essential, but no one knows what the condition of the twenty-five-year-old film stock might be and the red tape to be overcome boggles the mind. RCA's ambivalent attitude toward their sometimes-difficult star certainly complicates matters, regardless of how much water has passed under that bridge.


But discussions between Perry and RCA regarding the future of Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? continue.