That kid is destined for pictures — The fantastic voyage of John Scheinfeld
No stranger to retro pop culture, filmmaker John Scheinfeld has written, produced, or directed — sometimes all three — esteemed documentaries over a 20-year period examining The Unknown Marx Brothers, Sinatra: The Classic Duets, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), The Bee Gees: This Is Where I Came In, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘Smile’, and Ricky Nelson Sings. Scheinfeld is most assuredly not one to rest on his laurels.
A product of supportive parents from Chicago, Illinois, the director’s cinematic passion manifested itself as an 11-year-old collecting tapes from the golden age of radio. He was definitely not your run-of-the-mill teenager.
Excusing himself after dinner, Scheinfeld could escape to a dimension where imagination reigned and possibilities were endless. A screening of the immortal Lawrence of Arabia  convinced Scheinfeld that he had to be in the moving picture business.
Graduating from film school at Northwestern University in Chicago, the intensely driven young man spent hours researching the names of approximately 50 studio executives, network programmers, and production companies.
Possessing no Hollywood contacts, Scheinfeld nevertheless distributed a flamboyant résumé that ultimately led to an unbelievable stint at Paramount Studios and Mary Tyler Moore [MTM] Enterprises in the mid-‘80s. No doubt about it, his career has been a Cinderella story.
The seemingly never-ending development saga of Fame & Fortune, intended as the first theatrical biography of Elvis Presley as seen through the eyes of Memphis Mafia member Sonny West, cast a noticeable kink in Scheinfeld’s proven track record.
Officially hired in September 2011 by producers Ricki and Cindy Friedlander of RLF Victor Productions to rewrite the existing screenplay and direct the feature film, Scheinfeld was overjoyed at the prospect of tackling his debut big screen movie.
He soon cleared his schedule and spent the next nine months rewriting the screenplay based on West’s memoir, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business, co-written with Marshall Terrill. Scheinfeld effectively portrayed the 16-year genuine friendship between the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and his loyal subject, admitting that he intentionally didn’t craft “an expose or ‘let’s look at every horrible thing Elvis Presley ever did kind of movie.’”
A contract dispute over payment erupted in May 2012 between the Friedlanders and Scheinfeld. Subsequent arbitration ruled in his favor, and the Canadian duo has not compensated Scheinfeld as of this writing, landing them squarely on the Writers Guild of America Strike/Unfair List.
While none of the sorry Elvis fiasco was the documentarian’s fault, he is determined not to look back, instead focusing his energy on a plethora of appealing projects such as I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song [i.e. the hit Lee Ann Womack country-pop crossover smash], Dick Cavett’s Watergate, Dick Cavett’s Vietnam, and Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. Without further ado, experience the fantastic voyage of John Scheinfeld.
The John Scheinfeld Interview
How did you become attached to Fame & Fortune, a film based on Sonny West’s memoir, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business?
It has been a dream of mine, probably from that moment I watched Lawrence of Arabia with my parents, to direct a feature film. My career took me other places, and I really wasn’t sure that my dream would ever be realized.
Late in 2010 — shortly after the Nilsson documentary came out to great acclaim — my agent called me up on a Friday and said, “Canadian producers Ricki and Cindy Friedlander have optioned this book, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business, written by Sonny West with Marshall Terrill. Sonny was a bodyguard and friend to Elvis Presley.
“The Friedlanders have developed a script that has been passed on everywhere in Hollywood. Now they want to bring on a writer-director with a new vision for the film. Would you be interested in reading it?” It didn’t take long for me to say, “Yeah, I’ll do that!”
Months of ongoing conversations ensured while I was working on other projects. Eventually we closed a deal in August 2011, and I flew to Toronto and talked the Friedlanders through all the changes I wanted to make to the script. We had several very good and productive work sessions and they signed off on all changes. I then returned to Los Angeles to begin rewriting the existing script.
Was Fame & Fortune intended to be a straight biographical Elvis film?
Not at all. At its heart, Fame & Fortune is about an extraordinary friendship between two men over a nearly 20-year period [1960–1976]. Sonny was there to witness much of what Elvis experienced during that period in a way that so few others did. It excited me to be able to tell a story from that point of view. Sonny’s story would have given the audience a unique window into the world of Elvis Presley.
Why hasn’t there been a feature film devoted to Elvis?
That’s really a question for Elvis Presley Enterprises [EPE]. There are a lot of iconic artists, Frank Sinatra being one, where scripts have been developed but for one reason or another, they never make it to the big screen. I had high hopes that this time it would be different.
How did you condense the 400-page memoir into a screenplay?
As is most often the case adapting books for the screen, there was far more material than could possibly fit into a feature film. There were things in the book that didn’t translate well to the big screen.
So part of what went into the script writing process was attempting to synthesize all of Sonny’s memories into a narrative that has flow, character arcs, character development, and brings Elvis alive as a three dimensional human being. Not an easy task — it’s a challenge to write a good script and to produce a great film.
One of the things I must do as a documentary filmmaker is determine where the truth lies after interviewing many different people with varying perspectives on the man, the music, and what happened. It’s akin to the famous storytelling technique dubbed the Rashomon effect. When reading Sonny’s book, I kept wondering, ‘Is this true? Is this reliable? Is what Sonny saw real, or is there an agenda here?’
There’s one story that made me believe that Sonny has a great eye for detail and his memory is clear and true. Elvis met the Beatles on August 27, 1965. Most rock historians pay little attention to this encounter, but I believe it is an extremely significant event.
On that night the star of the past would come face-to-face with the stars of the present, the young men who had knocked him off the top of the rock music mountain. I believe Elvis realized he was becoming irrelevant. His movies weren’t doing well, he had not had a hit record in a few years, and his future was unclear.
I read at least six separate accounts of what happened that night. And they don’t all agree in many of the details. Later I came across a detailed and enthusiastic account given by Lennon in an interview.
My experience, as a result of having done The U.S. vs. John Lennon and getting to “know” Lennon as a person, is that he tended to downplay things. That was just his nature. That Lennon would be so enthusiastic about meeting Elvis and retained such detailed memories — I came to believe that his is a reliable account of what happened.
I went back and read Sonny’s account, and they’re very close. Not identical, but still very close, which made me feel Sonny truly has an eye for detail and a good memory of what happened, not only in this instance, but in so many others.
Did you meet Sonny?
I spoke with Sonny twice on the phone, but never had the pleasure of meeting him face to face. The conversations we had were largely to get acquainted. Sonny did not participate in any creative discussions while I was rewriting the existing script.
Did the controversial aspect of Sonny’s life with Elvis cause you any consternation?
No, it did not. When Sonny, his cousin Red West, and Dave Hebler published Elvis: What Happened a couple of weeks before Elvis’s demise in August 1977, most people did not know what we now know about Elvis’s personal life. It had, up to then, been hidden from public view.
When they wrote about that side of Elvis, it left the media stunned and angered many fans. They didn’t want to believe such things about a man they loved so much. In other words, ‘that couldn’t be my Elvis.’
However, so many others close to Elvis have acknowledged the same things Sonny, Red and Dave wrote about, so I don’t think it’s the least bit controversial 40 years later. They were telling the truth and, I believe, telling the truth from a place of love and affection and hoping they could scare Elvis straight.
[Author’s Note: The trio was unceremoniously canned by Elvis’s father Vernon Presley in July 1976 after a tour-ending show at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. The official reason given by Vernon for the firing was a cost-saving move, although innumerable longtime Memphis Mafia members and scholars concur in modern times that the Wests and Hebler had confronted the singer one time too many about his rampant prescription drug abuse. Another theory posits that Vernon washed his hands of the team after several lawsuits had been filed due to the bodyguards’ strictly enforced security measures against overzealous fans in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe].
How did you want Elvis’s music to be utilized in the film?
Music in my documentaries is most often used in three ways: to advance the story through the lyrics, to provide a window into what our subject may have been thinking or feeling at a particular time, or to comment on the action that’s taking place onscreen. So I couldn’t possibly prevent myself from using Elvis’s music in the same fashion [laughs].
There would have been some significant challenges in using Elvis’s music because of clearance issues, but…relentless optimist that I am…I always hoped that once EPE and Sony Music (who owns Elvis’s master recordings) saw my script and how respectful and celebratory it is of Elvis, that they would have supported the film.
What are some of your favorite Elvis songs?
[Laughs]. How can you possibly choose one or two songs from that extraordinary catalogue? It’s such an extraordinary and influential body of work. My iPod contains well over 100 Elvis songs, any one of which I’m happy to hear at any time.
I love a lot of the early songs like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Jailhouse Rock,” both terrific. There’s a little song from 1957 called “Paralyzed” written by Otis Blackwell which a lot of people don’t know, but I love.
“Viva Las Vegas” contains amazing energy, and I must give props to the iconic “Suspicious Minds.” “Burning Love” is kind of the last of the excellent, rocker type songs that he recorded. There are moments I can really appreciate in the ’70s, but I tend to be in the Lennon/McCartney camp — Elvis’s finest work was the rock and roll stuff he did in the ‘50s.
Still, there’s a lovely performance he did of a Neil Sedaka tune called “Solitaire” [From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee]. I’ve heard two versions that Sony Music has put out — the original version with overdubbed strings/backing voices and a more stripped down, intimate version I tend to like more [The Jungle Room Sessions, Follow That Dream Records, 2001]. I feel it spoke in some way to where Elvis was as a person near the end of his life, and I can feel the emotion in that song.
But right up there on top of my list is “If I Can Dream,” taken from the’68 Comeback Special. The passion Elvis infuses into that song, it’s as if he’s risen to the stratosphere when he’s singing.
The lyrics are quite simple, but powerful. The arrangement just builds to an absolutely extraordinary emotional climax. I remember having that reaction when I first saw it, and I have that reaction now when I watch that spectacular performance of “If I Can Dream.”
And your favorite Elvis film(s) would be…
It’s a toss-up between Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. In both films you see the potential of Elvis as an actor and significant screen presence. You can’t take your eyes off him, he’s that charismatic.
I share the opinion of a lot of film critics who believe that he never fully realized his promise. Unfortunately, Colonel Parker and the studio — with Elvis’s consent — kept putting him into movies that fit a formula and, while they made money, he rarely had a chance to show what he was truly capable of.
Of his later movies, my favorite is Viva Las Vegas, not so much because the script was so much better than the others — it wasn’t — but because of the sizzling chemistry between Elvis and Ann Margret.
For Fame & Fortune I went deep into the archives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and discovered a hand-written draft of a steamy scene between them that had been cut early on from Viva Las Vegas.
Using that as the basis, I wrote a scene that put that chemistry on display in a fresh and fascinating way that would provide the audience with a real fly-on-the-wall experience. I was quite proud of that scene.
How did you portray “Colonel” Tom Parker?
The Colonel certainly appears in the script, but he is not the star or co-star.
How did you characterize Elvis’s final years?
The media tends to focus on the last few years of Elvis’s life, what one writer called “The Fat Elvis Years.” The sad result is that in the decades since he passed away, Elvis has become something of a joke.
For example, a few years ago on Elvis’s birthday, the local Los Angeles weatherman came out dressed as late-period Elvis with a sequined jumpsuit, cape, heavy sideburns and big sunglasses mimicking Elvis, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
My goal was to take Elvis out of the tabloids. He’s been there far too long as this caricature. There’s so much more to him and his musical accomplishments than that.
Through Sonny’s experiences I hoped to recognize the remarkable achievements of this artist and to create a three-dimensional human being without apologizing for his complexity. My script dealt with the good and the bad, but in proper balance so that we got a real, rich, and textured portrait of an artist.
I wanted the film to be similar to the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech , which is about many interesting things, but at its core is about an amazing friendship between two men. We didn’t do an expose or ‘Let’s look at every horrible thing Elvis Presley ever did’ kind of movie. At the end of the day, I wanted to be true to the spirit of a great artist and the love his fans have for him.
Was a start date ever assigned for filming?
Unfortunately, Fame & Fortune is not the first — nor will it be the last — feature film project to collapse before making it to the big screen. The reasons are many and varied and discussing them would inevitably lead to a he said/she said-type mud-slinging that serves no one.
The fact is that my involvement in the project ended in mid-2012 because of a payment dispute between me and the producers, Ricki and Cindy Friedlander .
What cannot be disputed is that the subsequent arbitration found in my favor. The judgment was subsequently certified by the Superior Court of the State of California and that the Friedlanders and their company, Fame & Fortune Productions, are now on the Writers Guild of America Strike/Unfair List and will remain there until the Writers Guild collects the monies due me. Among other things that means that no member of the WGA can work for the Friedlanders on this or any other project until the matter is resolved.
It’s sad, really. This project had so much promise and could have — and should have — been something special. It was a nice dream for awhile.
Please discuss your childhood a bit. Have you always been interested in telling a story?
I’m from the Midwest originally, and watched altogether too much television and too many movies when I was growing up. I just became totally fascinated with being able to tell a story using a visual medium.
Combine that with just a natural curiosity — I was always asking people, “What do you do, how do you do it, why do you do it, and what does it mean to you when you do it?”
So I combine those two things, and whether I’m doing something in a narrative form or a documentary form, it’s really the same — it’s telling a story in what I hope will be the most interesting way.
I try to make a point of only getting involved with projects that interest me — either they nurture my soul, stimulate my brain, or make me laugh. If you look at the projects I’ve done, every project meets that criteria.
What films influenced you as a kid?
When I was 11 years old, I began collecting tapes of old radio drama/comedy shows from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. I would go up in my room after dinner, turn off the lights, and time travel back to an era where imagination was king.
As you may know, the golden age of radio is often called the theatre of the mind because there were no pictures. You had to create all the images in your head. And I think that in many ways this was responsible for helping me visualize things and has served me very well in every project I undertake.
As for films, my parents took me to a screening of Lawrence of Arabia  when I was a teenager. I remember sitting in the 10th row, just staring up at the screen and being absolutely blown away. The epic story and script, superior performances by the entire cast, masterful direction by David Lean…everything was as close to perfect as I could imagine. All the way home I kept saying to myself, ‘I have to be in this business.’
Along the way I’ve also been influenced by Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and many other great filmmakers. In one way or another, they have inspired me to do what I do.
So, how did you get from the Midwest to California in 1981?
Somehow, from the time I began battling puberty, I knew that wanted to come out to Hollywood and do something — producing, writing, directing — something. And after my undergraduate work at Oberlin College and film school at Northwestern University, it was time to make my assault on Hollywood.
I put together a very flamboyant resume, because my feeling then as now is all resumes have to do is get noticed. I don’t care if they read it or remember what’s in it, as long as it says, ‘Meet this person.’ And that’s what mine did.
Although I didn’t know a soul in California, I tracked down contact information for studio executives, network programmers, and production companies and sent out around 50 resumes. I said, “I’m coming out in two months and would love to have the chance to interview with you.”
Out of the 50, I got 20 responses, which is terrific. Twelve of them said, “No thanks, we don’t have anything,” but eight said, “Come see us when you’re out here.” I’m a bit of a Cinderella story — I arrived on a Sunday and by Friday I had a job at Paramount Studios.
Honestly, I just got there at the right time as they had recently fired a group of executives, and there were several openings. They hired me as a junior exec developing new television series.
It certainly wasn’t because I had the experience — rather they figured ‘This kid is smart, we can train him to do things the way we do them here.’ And that’s what happened. The longer I’m out here I realize just how rare and fortunate I was.
What was the first project you worked on during your Paramount stay?
When I first got to Paramount, I was working on developing new TV shows. We worked on scripts, the production of pilots that, more often than not, never made it on the air. The first one I remember being involved with was a very short-lived series called Ryan’s Four, a doctor’s show executive produced by Henry Winkler and starring Tom Skerritt.
I wasn’t at Paramount very long — I wasn’t happy in a big political environment where you spent 85% of your time keeping your job and 15% doing it. Happily, there was an opening at one of the best companies in television, MTM Enterprises [i.e. Mary Tyler Moore]. I worked on Remington Steele, St. Elsewhere, and a number of pilots done by Steven Bochco and Bruce Paltrow.
What was your official job description with MTM Enterprises?
In addition to developing new shows, I supervised episodes of programs that were currently on the air. My job was to interact with the network, get their notes on scripts, rough and fine cuts of the weekly episodes, and communicate them to the producers.
Sort of a middleman, if you will, where the network would call me and say, “We love this part of the script, and we have problems with this.” Then I would have to go to the producer(s) and communicate those notes and work with them to make the network happy but also to make the producer happy.
Sometime we would say, “Oh that’s a good note, we’ll do that.” Or sometimes we’d say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea and here’s why,” and there would be a bit of “negotiation” going on at that point.
Were those enjoyable years with MTM Enterprises?
It was a wonderful place to learn how television shows are produced, sold, and distributed. And I learned from the best how to do quality work — shows that stood out — and would stand the test of time. Not every company was interested in that, but MTM was very much at the forefront of quality television.
I met a lot of terrific people at MTM and at the networks with whom I’m still friends today. It was very challenging, sometimes very difficult work. But in so many ways, these and other experiences have brought me to where I am today.
What did you do after you decided to leave MTM Enterprises?
I was there five years, then went off on my own, where I’ve been clinging to the cliff of independent production ever since, first as a producer, then as a writer, then as a filmmaker.
Along the way I wrote many spec drama scripts for shows that were on the air, even a few pilot ideas of my own, and honed my craft. Eventually, I got some assignments writing episodes for television shows. Not ones I’m proud of, but it was a start.
A few years later I was discovered as a pilot writer by Bob (Robert) Greenblatt, who was the head development guy at Fox — today he’s Chairman of NBC Entertainment. Bob liked my writing and gave me a chance.
I wrote two pilots for Bob and then started writing for other networks. Not one of which got made! But that’s the nature of development — the odds are really against you. Yet it gave me experience in telling stories and coming up with original ideas.
During this time I also created and wrote a pilot for Nickelodeon [i.e. Stories from Growing Up, featuring Jamie Lee Curtis and Hulk Hogan]. It aired as a special, but didn’t go to series. And then…I discovered documentaries. I’ve been making them full time ever since.
About how long does it take for a documentary to see release?
Once a documentary is funded, it can take anywhere from 6 to 12 or 13 months depending on schedule and budget. The U.S. vs. John Lennon  took approximately 14 months, We Believe [a documentary on the love affair between the city of Chicago and the Cubs baseball team, 2009] took 12, Who Is Harry Nilsson…And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him? took, well, years, but that’s another story. Chasing Trane was in production for 18 months start to finish.
Was The Unknown Marx Brothers  your first documentary?
Yes. I’d become friendly with Groucho Marx’s grandson, Andy Marx, and at some point he said, “You know, you should do a documentary on the Marx Brothers.” “What do I know about making a documentary? I write drama scripts.” But Andy insisted, “No, you’re a storyteller — you should do this.”
Long story short, I got the rights to do a documentary about the Marx Brothers. I went to a friend of mine, David Leaf (a mutual love of the Beach Boys had originally brought us together). David knew some people at the Disney Channel who wanted to do pop culture documentaries (then it was a pay channel that programmed for kids during the day and for their parents after 8 p.m.). So we teamed up.
It began as a one-hour clip show about the famous comedy team, not so much a straight-ahead biography of them. However, as we began pulling together an amazing amount of rare, little-or-never-before-seen pieces of film, we took a new direction, focusing on those aspects of their story not widely known.
The Disney Channel folks liked where we were going so much that they expanded it into a two hour film, which was great because it enabled us to give it more richness and texture. Lo and behold, the New York Times and other publications loved it.
That was really where I said, “Wow, this is actually fun!” It sort of started me off on doing documentaries, although I was still writing pilot scripts and doing what I call “doc-doc work,” where I would “fix” documentaries that the Disney Channel had acquired from independent producers. They would call and say, “This doc needs some work. Can you do some rewriting, re-cutting, or reshooting?” I did that on and off for a few years.
In 2000 David and I decided we would start a company to do documentary projects, either separately or together under that umbrella. After a number of great projects, including The U.S. vs. John Lennon, we determined we really wanted to be doing different things, so we stayed friends and moved on to do solo projects that were our passion.
What led you to work on Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘Smile’?
Beautiful Dreamer came out through our company, LSL Productions, but it was really David’s passion project. I’m credited as a producer, but I only helped a little. David deserves all the credit for making it as great as it was.
David had been a longtime fan of Brian Wilson and knows more than just about anybody about Brian, his work, his process, his history, and his character. The documentary was a labor of love for David. While he was busy on that, I started working on the Harry Nilsson film. David is credited on that as a producer and did a bit of work on it, but Nilsson was mostly my baby.
We did the Bee Gees — 2001’s This Is Where I Came In: The Official Story of the Bee Gees — Sinatra — 2003’s Sinatra: The Classic Duets — and a lot of iconic artists that we love. There are many others we would have loved to have done but you can only do so much.
As a dedicated Rick Nelson fan, I thought you did a commendable job on Ricky Nelson Sings.
Thank you. I’m a Rick Nelson fan, too. It wasn’t a biography, more a hybrid show that PBS aired for the 20th anniversary of his death. The primary focus was on Rick the artist. At the end of many episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet [1952–1966], Rick would do a rock and roll number with his great band — James Burton, drummer Ritchie Frost, and bassist James Kirkland, later replaced by Joe Osborn.
We took approximately 20 of Rick’s performances from Ozzie and Harriet and created a flow for them. We then blended in interviews with his children — Gunnar, Matthew, and Sam — and James Burton.
One day we held a jam session, the high point of which was convincing baby brother Sam to sing with Gunnar and Matthew on “Garden Party” with James playing lead guitar. It’s just a wonderful, very emotional moment — the first time the siblings sang together in public.
There were some outtakes from that session. Not outtakes in the sense they weren’t good enough, but outtakes in the sense of ‘we just have so much…we can’t use it all.’ We did quite a bit of shooting that day — we have a bonus performance or two on the DVD. Gunnar and Matthew have talked about doing something with that material. They perform a stage show called “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” and they show footage from that day in the show.
I’ve often thought that Rick is worthy of a feature-length documentary. LIFE magazine coined the term “teenage idol” especially for him. From 1957–1964 Rick had 18 Top Ten hits on Billboard and another 15 in the Top 40. Only Elvis had more chart hits than Rick during that period. Rick led a fascinating life and was a seriously underrated artist who left behind an extraordinary body of work.
What is the backstory on Who Is Harry Nilsson…And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?
In some ways, the story of Harry Nilsson is not dissimilar to the story of Elvis Presley. Not in the sense that Harry was as popular an artist…he wasn’t…or sold as many records…which he didn’t…but in the sense of being a by-product of a difficult childhood that left him with self-destructive tendencies that impacted choices made, personally and professionally.
Both Elvis and Harry overcame their respective childhoods to produce a remarkable body of work. Harry was just far lesser-known than Elvis, although ironically, they were on the same label [i.e. RCA].
It was when I was in college and doing a morning radio show — where I selected the music I wanted to play — that I came across Harry’s first album. It was just so original and so fresh. His three and-a-half octave range voice sent chills up my spine, and I was really impressed by the unusual things he chose to write and sing about.
I remember sitting in the listening room one day and putting on his first three albums [i.e. Pandemonium Shadow Show, Aerial Ballet, and Harry, 1967–1969] and being blown away by their quality and depth. I became a fan then.
But it wasn’t until many, many years later when Harry’s good friend and attorney, Lee Blackman — who still represents the estate — came to me and said, “How would you like to do a documentary about Harry?”
I thought to myself, ‘Well, I love his music, but I don’t know much about his story.’ So I did some research. The more I read about Harry, the more compelling his story became to me. It was a story that had to be told.
So many people don’t know Harry’s name, but they know his music. There have been many, many places where I’ve started to name songs that he sang and had a hit with or wrote, like “One Is the Loneliest Number,” Three Dog Night’s break-through 1969 hit. Folks will exclaim, “Oh, I know that song!”
The Monkees were the first major recording artists to record one of Harry’s songs. In the mid-‘60s, Harry was starting to get a little bit of notice inside music circles and had written a number of songs. One of them called “Cuddly Toy” got to Davy Jones. Davy loved the song, brought it to the rest of his band members, and they decided to record it. That really jump-started Harry’s career and got him noticed by a much wider group of people.
And there’s a Beatles connection…their publicist was a guy named Derek Taylor. He was in America and heard a couple of tracks from Pandemonium Shadow Show on the radio. He was so knocked out by it that he ordered an entire box of albums and sent them to lots of people in the UK, including the Beatles.
In May 1968, Paul McCartney and John Lennon did a press conference in New York City to announce the formation of their company, Apple. A reporter asked who John’s favorite American group was. Being flip and glib as usual, John replied, “Well, my favorite group is Nilsson.” It made headlines everywhere, and people wondered, “Who is this guy?” That contributed to the music press getting to know who Harry was.
Even now, seven years after the film was released, I find myself marveling at the range of musical styles in which he worked — pop, ballads, heavy rockers, blues, classic rock and roll — songs that were melodic in the way of some of the great songwriters of the ’30s. And of course, there was that voice.
What have you been doing since the collapse of Fame & Fortune?
It’s been quite a busy time, actually. I wrote and directed the first feature documentary about how one extraordinary song, Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” has dramatically transformed people’s lives. I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song was released in over 400 theatres nationwide for a one night only special event and then on the Hallmark Channel and DVD.
I also directed and produced two high-profile documentaries for PBS: Dick Cavett’s Watergate and Dick Cavett’s Vietnam. They are intensely personal, intimate, and entertaining explorations of critical events that helped shape American history in the 20th Century, each seen through the prism of interviews conducted by legendary talk show host Dick Cavett back in the day.
The Watergate film did so well that the network ordered Dick Cavett’s Vietnam. I was invited to Kent State University in Ohio to show the documentary as part of their 45th anniversary commemoration of the tragic shootings. Walking the grounds, meeting several of the survivors and witnesses…seeing their museum and exhibits…it was a very profound experience. Then it was on to Cleveland to screen Who Is Harry Nilsson…? at the invitation of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was well-received and there was a spirited Q&A afterward. Very cool!
And I just completed Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. It is a thought-provoking, uplifting, powerful and passionate film about an outside-the-box thinker whose boundary-shattering music continues to impact and influence people around the world.
This is not a traditional bio. Rather, I wanted to create a rich, textured and compelling narrative that brings Coltrane alive as a three-dimensional human being as well as taking the audience to unexpected places.
It is a story of demons and darkness, of persistence and redemption and, above all else, it is the incredible journey of a spiritual warrior who found himself, found God, and in the process, created an extraordinary body of work that transcends all barriers of race, religion, age and geography. It is a film for anyone who appreciates the power of music to entertain, inspire and transform.
During his lifetime Coltrane did no television interviews and only a handful of radio interviews — and the sound quality of those was not good enough to use. But I did want him to have an active and vibrant presence in the film beyond the performance clips and photos.
Happily, he had done many interviews for newspapers and magazines, and I peppered those words throughout the film to illuminate what Coltrane might have been thinking or feeling at key moments in his life and career.
These words are spoken by Academy Award winner Denzel Washington. Not only is Denzel a superb actor, but in most of his movie roles he radiates an exceptional quiet strength. Coltrane, many of his friends told me, embodied that same strength. That’s why Denzel was my first choice, and I’m thrilled he made the time to participate in our film.
An amazing array of people agreed to participate in the film to talk about Coltrane, among them President Bill Clinton, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, John Densmore of the Doors, the great Sonny Rollins, Common, Kamasi Washington, and philosopher Cornel West.
In addition to the blessing and participation of the Coltrane family, we have the full support of the major record labels that control the Coltrane catalog. Happily, as a result, the film is scored in its entirety with Coltrane’s music. The extraordinary energy, beauty, poignancy, pain, and spirituality heard in his music combines to create a powerful score to bring the events of times past to life.
I’m very proud of the picture and can’t wait for people to see it. We were blessed to be selected by three of the world’s most prestigious film festivals — Telluride [world premiere, September 2016], Toronto [North American premiere, September 2016], and IDFA [European premiere, November 2016]. I continue to be warmed by the audience and critical response we received at these festivals.
We also did the great DOC NYC festival in November 2016 and will be at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February 2017. Distribution deals are nearly done that will put us in theatres later in 2017 and on television after that.
This month I’m starting two new documentaries. Details soon!
Will you always remain a documentarian at heart?
I think of myself, not so much a documentary filmmaker but as a storyteller. And whether that’s in the documentary form or the feature film narrative form, it really doesn’t matter. I just love telling stories and making movies.
That said, I will never give up doing documentaries. It’s a great job — I get to go to interesting places and talk to interesting people about interesting things. I’ve had the honor to tell the stories of some real iconic artists whose work I admire.
Gauging Elvis Presley’s Shakespearean destiny from an outsider’s perspective
Definitive Steve McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill has also chronicled Elvis Presley insiders Sonny West, Barbara…
The deep heritage of Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre…and that time Elvis Presley could only move…
Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre is steeped in a deep musical heritage that continues to attract a wide array of major…
Chasing music and moving images with David Crosby’s documentarian
A.J. Eaton of “David Crosby: Remember My Name” fame humanizes one of rock’s most infamous jerks with tales of Jim…
Indie filmmaker Len Rosen elucidates ‘Gravity 180’ smooth jazz documentary
Director Len Rosen documents his passion for Gravity 180, a Los Angeles-based trio produced by Eddie Brown and smooth…
Peter Fonda looks back on father’s iconic performance in Sidney Lumet’s ‘12 Angry Men’
Peter Fonda on director Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” and the unstoppable fierceness which his father Henry Fonda had…
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