Monday, January 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #145 - Harry Nilsson - The Point

Harry Nilsson's The Point, released as both an album and full-length animated T.V. special in 1971 succeeds on two different levels. It is another in a string of fantastic Nilsson records which were about to reach their apotheosis with 1972's Nilsson Schmilsson. Because of that album's overwhelming commercial and artistic success, The Point sometimes gets minimized. For me, being 12 years old upon its release, it was actually a far more impactful album at the time. As nearly as I can tell, Nilsson wrote the songs first, pitched the idea for an animated special to an ABC executive, got it green-lighted and the animation got made, then Nilsson himself kind of wrestled it into its final cinematic form. The original television broadcast in February of 1971 was a pretty big prime-time deal, which included Dustin Hoffman narrating the story - appropriate considering Hoffman’s tangential role in Nilsson’s career as the star of Midnight Cowboy, which included Nilsson’s version of the hit song “Everybody's Talkin'.” There are also scenes in The Point that feel oddly similar to Hoffman's breakout role in The Graduate. On the DVD version, the narration is supplied by Ringo Starr, also appropriate due to the ex-Beatle’s longtime friendship with Nilsson. The other voices include Mike Lookinland (Bobby Brady) and the great character actor Paul Frees, whose presence is almost miraculously recognizable and comforting from countless appearances in 1960's children's entertainment. All these points of cultural convergence lend an even greater emotional poignancy and historical weight to the film and album. It is inextricably linked to the decade it followed, and in a way, feels like one of the really clean, unsullied representations of the childlike sweetness of much of the 60’s experience.

The movie itself is an explosion of primary watercolor, with an animation style somewhere between Yellow Submarine and the cartoons found in The New Yorker. It is reminiscent of the best of the 1960's Saturday morning cartoons, but with the lysergic undercurrent of a Fillmore light show. It’s a simple tale of a boy named Oblio who is born different from everybody else in his world, because his head has no point. He has a round head, and everybody in the land of point must have a point. Sadly, Oblio and his faithful dog Arrow are banished to the pointless forest. Here they meet a variety of colorful characters who provide neat metaphors or solutions to the modern dilemmas of growing up and fitting in. During his experiences, we come to recognize Oblio as a classic alienated youth. He confronts and comes to grips with the generation gap, conformity, freedom, independence, identity and, when his parents knuckle under to society's expectations instead of supporting their son, the concept of “never trust anyone over 30,” before triumphantly returning home to show the rest of the world that under the shape of your head, we are all the same - an important lesson for all children (and adults). After more than 30 years of working in record stores, I have come to the conclusion that The Point was an elemental experience for many people who were lucky enough to experience it upon its initial airing. I've had so many conversations about it where people's eyes just glaze over with giddy nostalgia as they quietly breathe "Oh I just LOVED The Point when I first saw it." The film impacted many in a positive way. It was cool and it packed a strong moral wallop -perfect for the post-60's hangover.

Musically, this might be the easiest way “in” to Nilsson’s work. The songs are classic Nilsson - whimsicality with a heightened sense of innocence in consideration of his intended audience. As always his voice is a wonder - silky smooth and soaring. The album version breezes along much more quickly than the movie. Harry Nilsson himself provides an abbreviated, and thus somewhat more coherent narrative. He skips most of the dialogue, and just frames the plot succinctly, lending just the right amount of context to make this feel like a children's fable instead of another Harry Nilsson album. The songs themselves are some of his most touching and memorable. “Everything's Got 'Em,” “Me And My Arrow,” “Down To The Valley,” “Think About Your Troubles” and “Are You Sleeping?” are absolute classics of that most elusive of genres: kid appropriate rock which is as good as adult appropriate rock. The real treasure lies in two ballads: “Life Line” and the beautiful “Think About Your Troubles.”  Any Nilsson fan will love this record, and the record or the film can turn almost anyone into a Nilsson fan. As a separate entity the animated movie The Point is both a classic kid's film and full of psychedelic imagery, but the greatness of it all rests squarely on Harry Nilsson's wonderful songs.

-         Paul Epstein

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