Harry Nilsson

Popeye: Deluxe Edition (Music from the Motion Picture) (Varese Sarabande)

Varese Sarabande

Dec 06, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


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The first thing to get out of the way is how insane this 1980 project was from the start: Robert Altman, five years removed from Nashville, was given a big budget to direct a Popeye movie in an era when every movie wasn't descended from a comic. Furthermore, it starred Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, the latter of which makes a ton of sense until one accounts for the fact that the film was a musical. (Not that Williams was a renowned vocalist.) To make this musical vision come to bizarre life, Altman hired Harry Nilsson, who was, much like Altman, thought to be a fading star. Alcohol had already taken its toll, and unlike Altman, Nilsson wouldn't find another creative gear later in life.

Nilsson was a restless musician, trying on different modes and personas as it suited him, discarding them when he became bored. Though Popeye isn't a masterpiece, even with the benefit of hindsight, it contains wonderful moments, elements grabbed from here and there, sparks of lights and life that showed Nilsson's tank wasn't empty. The opening "Sweethaven" has the grandiosity Nilsson embraced later in his career, and the song marches along with a confident and comfortable inevitability undercut by the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. This contrasts with the lovely "He Needs Me" (which had another successful film run in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love), a charming turn by Duvall. "Blow Me Down" is the most Nilsson of the tracks, and Williams does a credible approximation of Nilsson's nimble voice.

The reissue contains early versions of tracks featuring Nilsson himself, that famous voice worn thin by drink and mistreatment. Some of the takes have a freedom and looseness sanded down by the final project, like the banjo in "Everything is Food" or the woozy sway of "Sail With Me." Elsewhere we hear Nilsson coach Duvall through "He Needs Me," and the intimacy of itthe intake of breath, the sometimes gentle, sometimes frustrated way he pulls the performance from heris striking. It's the demo of "Din' We," however, that shows a potential other side of Nilsson. Had he wanted it, he could have reshaped himself as a Tom Waits-type figure. But that's what's so haunting about Nilsson's career: At any point, he could have been anything. (www.varesesarabande.com)

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