Wild About Harry

You've Got Mail soundtrack takes a small step toward rehabilitating the memory of Harry Nilsson

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 taken. Over the last two decades, the vaults of '60s and '70s 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 had Rob Reiner with the Ephron-penned When Harry Met Sally--by turning to pre-rock standards, focusing particular attention on the dubious 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 with solid boomer credentials (eight Top-40 hits from 1969-74) 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 soundtrack, including an unlikely cover of his "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" by Sinead O'Connor. While it's not likely to 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 nose dive in the mid-'70s.

Although 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 1998, 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. In fact, it says much for the state of disrepair into which Nilsson's memory has fallen that he's generally 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 L.A. Connoisseurs of TV land may know him for providing 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 1998, a particularly strange development considering the 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. However, he not only wrote most of his own material, but he provided songs for artists as diverse as The Monkees ("Cuddly Toy"), Three Dog Night ("One") 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, there emerged a sizable gap 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 never went away. The power of his early songs comes from his insistence on revisiting the days of his youth, as if singing about 1940s 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 that he was denied when his father moved away. The more obvious move 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 '60s 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 also evoked the idea of dog-as-child's-only-friend on the beautiful hit single "Me and My Arrow."

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