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On the life and afterlife of Harry Nilsson’s fabulous animated feature 'The Point!'

A clip from 'The Point!'

A clip from 'The Point!' Promotional still

Twenty-six years have passed since singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson died at the age of 52.

Though his recording career had come to an end in 1980 with the release of the brilliant (if underappreciated) soundtrack for Robert Altman’s live-action Popeye, he continued to work on music until the end of his days. The results of those efforts finally appeared in 2019 with the Omnivore Records release of Losst and Founnd, a collection of intricately arranged songs featuring the deep, rough-hewn vocals characteristic of his post-Pussy Cats years.

Last year also marked the premiere of Netflix’s Russian Doll, a darkly comic Groundhog Day-structured series in which Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia is fated to live out the same day over and over. Instead of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” Nilsson’s jaunty “Gotta Get Up” sets the tone. The song, from 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, struck such a chord with viewers that Spotify reported a 3,300 percent increase in streams in the U.S.

With Nilsson awareness at an all-time high, MVD Entertainment Group now releases the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray and digital edition of The Point! The film’s HD debut was made possible by Los Angeles author, programmer, and collector Kier-La Janisse who provided a rare 16mm print for the restoration. (Not so coincidentally, she’s been working on a book called A Song from the Heart Beats the Devil Every Time: Children’s Programming and the Counterculture, 1965-1985.)

Nilsson was all of 29 years old when his animated bedtime story premiered as an ABC Movie of the Week on February 2, 1971 (it was originally scheduled to air during Christmas 1970, for those wondering about MVD’s arithmetic). By that time, he had already conquered the worlds of movies and music through his performance of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” for Midnight Cowboy and his authorship of “One,” the lament to loneliness with which Three Dog Night had a top 10 hit. On the personal front, Nilsson and his second wife, Diane, had just welcomed their first son, Zak. What was left to do except to conquer the world of television?

Nilsson’s label, RCA, had released the soundtrack the previous December. The album features a needlepoint-style illustration of the artist on the front, sporting the same cone-shaped noggin as his pint-sized hero Oblio (voiced by nine-year-old Mike Lookinland of The Brady Bunch). My divorced Mom bought me a copy that year, and I’d play it repeatedly, flipping the pages of Gary Lund’s illustrated eight-page booklet all the while. I’ve memorized the songs and images to the extent that they live in my head; it’s that potent combination of the expectedly childlike, the surprisingly adult, and the just-plain weird that makes The Point! work as well for me now as it did then.

For this hand-crafted project, Nilsson did everything he possibly could. He hired a screenwriter (Norm Lenzer) to adapt his idea, a director and animator (Fred Wolf) to bring it to life, a producer (George Tipton) to conduct and arrange his songs, and narrators to tell the story: Midnight Cowboy’s Dustin Hoffman for the original broadcast, Alan Barzman and Alan Thicke for subsequent airings, and his friend Ringo Starr for the home-video version. It’s Nilsson, however, who provides the definitive voice-over on the album, though Starr is so good it’s too bad he hasn’t done more.

The Nilsson who conceived the story is the same Nilsson who grew up without a father, wrote songs about fatherlessness like “1941” (from 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show) and “Daddy’s Song” (1968’s Aerial Ballet), and would have seven children by two different women. None of them would experience the same degree of abandonment, though it’s fair to say that his youngest children with his Irish-born wife, Una, saw a lot more of him than his oldest son, Zak, who talks about him with a sort of rueful affection in Alyn Shipton’s definitive 2013 biography, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter.

In The Point!, Oblio begins life in a kingdom filled with points. As Nilsson’s song has it, “Everything’s Got ‘Em”—except for Oblio, the sole round-headed citizen. As Starr states in his narration, “He had no point. He had no point at all.” Always a fan of wordplay, Nilsson extracts as much meaning from the word “point” as possible. Anyone who’s ever felt different from the rest can see themselves in Oblio, not least because he’s a regular kid. He’s polite, he’s well mannered—he’s just pointless.

To help him fit in, Oblio’s mother makes him a pointed cap. His head remains spherical, but now he looks more like everybody else. Instead of befriending any of his orange peers, Oblio finds a soul mate in “the greatest dog in the world,” which leads to “Me and My Arrow,” a sublime, two-minute pop song in which Nilsson describes a friendship in the first person, while simultaneously expressing adult fears of abandonment in lines like, “And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye.” It’s an unexpected detour in a song seemingly designed for children and animal lovers, but that was Nilsson’s modus operandi in a nutshell: to subvert pop-song expectations at every turn.

With the blue dog’s assistance, Oblio becomes a formidable player of Triangle Toss, the town’s boomerang-like pastime, but just as the other kids are warming up to him, he beats the Count’s purple sore loser of a son (voiced by Jodie Foster’s brother, Buddy). The Count can’t have the town see their future leader as a failure, so he convinces the easily-intimidated King to banish Oblio to the Pointless Forest.

The Count is a Dr. Seuss-grade villain to rival the green guy in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which preceded The Point! to network TV by five years, and there’s a similar sensibility at work in terms of the surrealistic look of the thing. Other possible inspirations include George Dunning’s animation for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Terry Gilliam’s animated collages for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Considering that Nilsson was friendly with both troupes, it’s unlikely that the similarities are wholly coincidental.

If it wasn’t already clear that The Point! is a parable about prejudice, one villager at the tribunal spells it out when she tells another, “If we let one of Oblio’s kind stay, before long the whole village will be crawling…” She doesn’t finish her sentence, and nor does she need to. Oblio stands for anyone who doesn’t look the same, speak the same, or act the same as the majority of their community.

As Oblio and Arrow, found guilty of criminal conspiracy, head towards the forest, Nilsson’s Rube Goldberg ballad “Think About Your Troubles” soundtracks their departure. The second-person song begins with you at the breakfast table, thinking about your troubles. You shed a tear that lands in your teacup, which ends up in the river, where it travels to the ocean to get eaten by fishes that are shallowed by a whale “who grew so old, he decomposed!” The cycle begins again as the body becomes one with the ocean, which flows into the river, which comes out of the tap, and ends up in your teacup.

Oblio has no time to think about his troubles. He’s just hoping to make it through the Pointless Forest in one piece, the first of his kind to accomplish the feat. To his surprise, it’s filled with points, although as the Pointless Man cautions, “A point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” He also encounters a swarm of bees and a cool cat called the Rock Man, who utters the best lines to a flute-infused, bebop beat, “You see what you want to see,” “You hear what you want to hear,” “You don’t have to have a point to have a point,” and my personal favorite, “You been goofin’ with the bees?” In the Blu-ray’s extra features, writer Lenzer notes that Nilsson insisted upon this character, though Lenzer hated him then and he hates him now, because he felt he was too much of a dated hippie stereotype.

Just when it seems as if Oblio and Arrow won’t meet any women along their travels, they come across the Fat Sisters, three tomato-shaped ladies who live to giggle and groove. Wolf has drawn them such that they appear to lack clothes, and yet he’s kept things G-rated by depicting them in a smeary manner as they bounce around like beach balls. “I really don’t understand this,” Oblio admits, ultimately deciding that understanding isn’t necessary. They simply exist to inspire laughter and merriment.

They next meet up with the Leaf Man, a malapropism-spouting businessman obsessed with profits, who’s the least interesting character by far. After an encounter with a prehistoric bird who takes Oblio and Arrow on a trip through the sky before bringing them down to Earth, hatching an egg, and then flying off with her chick, the two weary travelers settle down for a nap. Considering that The Point! had its roots in a potential musical about the Wright Brothers as young men (canine companion included) the sky trip likely sprung from that project.

Before they drift off into unconsciousness, Oblio comes to a realization: What’s in your head is more important than whether there’s a point on top of it. With that, Nilsson croons “Are You Sleeping?,” picking up where “Me and My Arrow” left off as he continues to wonder whether a relationship will last. “And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye,” he sighs with one breath. With another, he assures his partner that, “I’ll be there by your side.” Not to give too much away, but by the end of the film, everybody has sided with our conquering hero. Even if he still looks different.

There may be better family films, but few that are more personal and less condescending to young people. Though the more surreal elements of The Point! sprung from an acid trip Nilsson took while wandering through the Hollywood Hills with his dog Molly, the story remains timeless. And as a song cycle, the soundtrack stands alongside his finest albums, particularly Nilsson Schmilsson, to the extent that it loses nothing when untethered from the film. They’re simply lovely, heartfelt songs about making friends and finding your place in the world.

Through The Point!, Nilsson, the boy who grew up without a father, got to live out his fantasy of having one who was there for him just as he would try to be there for his kids. This is reflected in Oblio’s relationship with his parents combined with the relationship between the narrator’s son (also voiced by Mike Lookinland) and the father who tells the story that takes up the bulk of the film’s running time

In Alyn Shipton’s biography, animator Fred Wolf says he’s “unsure that the story is deliberately autobiographical.” At the time Nilsson conceived the project, biography may not have been on his mind, but in hindsight, it sure looks that way. Even beyond the father-son relationship, the gist of the story is that it’s better to live your truth, as Nilsson certainly did, than to conform to society’s expectations.

In 1991, long after his recording career had come to an end and just after the discovery that his business manager had drained his accounts, The Point! was revived as a stage musical in Los Angeles. The profits from the show, combined with the CD reissue of his All Time Greatest Hits, put Nilsson back in the black.

When I interviewed John Scheinfeld, director of the fine documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' about Him)? in 2007, he told me, “We had a hard time selling it. We tried for two years, and we just couldn't do it. People said, 'Harry? I don't know. He's not popular enough’.” In more recent years, Nilsson’s sons Zak and Kiefo (who was eight when his father died) have been performing songs from The Point! in a concert context, introducing and re-introducing audiences to material that has stood the test of time. Harry Nilsson may never have the name recognition of his famous friends in the Beatles, but his low-key TV special about a one-of-a-kind kid shows no signs of stopping.