50 Years Of 'The Point,' Harry Nilsson's Wonderful, Weird Musical Fable

Feb 15, 2020
Originally published on February 16, 2020 7:55 am

Harry Nilsson's concept album The Point turns fifty this year; to celebrate, the 1971 animated film adapted from the music will be released digitally and on BluRay for the first time. Nilsson, a beloved if occasionally overlooked writer of late 1960s pop hits, died in 1994, but his strange and endearing fairy tale album still resonates with those that remember it.

Featuring narration by Ringo Starr, The Point tells the tale of a boy named Oblio, the lone round-headed person in a kingdom where everything is pointy, including the citizens. Oblio, and his dog Arrow, are banished to the Pointless Forest and must find their way back to the kingdom.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Mike Lookinland, who voiced Oblio and went on to play Bobby on The Brady Bunch, and Kiefo Nilsson, Harry's son, about their memories of the film and the simple power of Harry Nilsson's songwriting. Listen to their full conversation in the player above and read on for highlights from the interview.

YouTube


Interview Highlights

On working on the original animated film

Mike Lookinland: Even as a 9-year-old, I could really see the artistry, the evident talent of these guys — Harry Nilsson, of course, but also the animators — and it was a thrill. But as a kid working in the business, at the time it would have been really just another job. But boy, in retrospect, it has turned out to be the thing I'm actually most proud of having been involved with. The Brady Bunch certainly had, overall, a much larger impact on my life in general, but I'm just really proud of having been involved with The Point.

On what makes The Point stand out as an animated film

Mike Lookinland: It sure is fun to see after all these years: I watched it this week. I'm a big fan of animation in general, but I was accustomed to seeing — the only people talking in cartoons are the ones who are the main characters talking to each other. It struck me in The Point, there's a lot of little asides in the crowd scenes, and especially in the courtroom scene where Oblio gets banished, where what you'd call bit players are talking to each other and they're not interacting with the main characters at all. I'd noticed that as a child to be something: this is different, this is cool.

Oblio and Arrow in the Pointless Forest.
Courtesy of MVD Entertainment Group

Kiefo Nilsson: I noticed that, too.It has almost a mature sense to it, it's almost like an adult layer. It's like adult commentary on what is otherwise a fairly childish fable, fairy tale thing. There's adult commentary happening of these characters in the background that murmur, but the comments they make, it's like they're watching the movie with you in a way and they kind of turn to you. That concept, to have these murmuring characters around, I always found that to be really funny.

On the songs Harry Nilsson wrote for the album

Kiefo Nilsson: I've produced a concert of the material several times, and [the music] accomplishes what it sets out to do in a very minimalist way. It really is a testament to the power of a great melody and great lyrics. There's an interesting thing with the tonality, because it's almost entirely major chords and a couple of dominant chords, and only one minor chord. [To audience] To the non-musicians: It's a little bit different to do things that way. Despite that, it still creates a lot of emotional depth because the melodies go to so many different places.

On the resonance of the film's message 50 years later

Kiefo Nilsson: I think that it is essentially a timeless story. It hits on a lot of different themes: you have the hero's journey, the coming of age journey, you have the boy who goes on an adventure with his dog, that kinship there. Then the themes beyond that: of prejudice and acceptance and our perspective. I think [that] is one of the biggest: how different perspectives on the same situation can create different (either) problems or solutions.

NPR's Ned Wharton and Dorothy Parvaz produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

1970, Harry Nilsson released a concept album about an uncommon little community.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S GOT'EM")

HARRY NILSSON: (Singing) This is the town and these are the people...

SIMON: Everything in this land had points, including the people, who all had pointy heads - everyone except a boy named Oblio who was born with a head that was round. The evil count convinces the king and kingdom that Oblio has broken the law of the land with his rounded features.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND MY ARROW")

H NILSSON: (Singing) Me and my Arrow...

SIMON: Nilsson's story of the boy and his dog, Arrow, and their adventures as they're banished to the Pointless Forest was released as an animated film in 1971, narrated here by Ringo Starr.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POINT")

RINGO STARR: (As Narrator) No one had ever been to the Pointless Forest, yet now Oblio and Arrow were going.

MIKE LOOKINLAND: (As Oblio) Hey, Arrow, you think there will be monsters?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

SIMON: The 50th anniversary Blu-ray release of "The Point" is being released. Mike Lookinland was the voice of Oblio. Some of you of a certain age might recall him as Bobby on "The Brady Bunch." Mike Lookinland joins us from the studios of KUER in Salt Lake City. Thanks so much for being with us.

LOOKINLAND: It's great to be here. My voice sounds a little different.

SIMON: Than when you were Bobby or when you were Oblio?

LOOKINLAND: When I was Oblio - well, all of that.

SIMON: Yeah. And the son of the late Harry Nilsson, Kiefo Nilsson, joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thank you very much for being with us, too.

KIEFO NILSSON: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Mike Lookinland, what did you think about this story when you first started reading lines in the studio?

LOOKINLAND: Even as a 9-year-old, I could really see the artistry - the evident talent of these guys, Harry Nilsson, of course, but also the animators. It was a thrill. But as a kid working in the business at the time, it would have been really just another job. But boy, in retrospect, it has turned out to be the thing I'm actually most proud of having been involved with.

SIMON: Wow. A member of "The Brady Bunch" says that, with all due regard to Florence Henderson and everyone else.

LOOKINLAND: Sure. I know on the - the producers of "The Brady Bunch." That certainly had, overall, a much larger impact on my life in general. But I'm just really proud of having been involved with "The Point."

SIMON: Kiefo Nilsson, you were born after the release of the film. And, God bless, I guess you were 8 years old when your father left us, right?

K NILSSON: Yeah, that's right.

SIMON: Do you remember seeing "The Point?"

K NILSSON: Yeah. I mean, it was - it had been around and I remember growing up and it was - just the imagery of it always stuck with me. And it's an interesting style of animation. Maybe it did frighten me a little bit. You know, there's certain parts that the imagery is just so - there's a very '70s sort of a feel to the animation.

LOOKINLAND: There's some real crazy artistry going on there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POINT")

BILL MARTIN: (As Rock Man) Now, here's the lick - you don't have to have a point to have a point, dig? Now I fear you've been getting some negative vibration from some place. You gotta collect yourself. Be cool.

LOOKINLAND: It sure is fun to see after all these years. I watched it this week.

SIMON: What'd you think?

LOOKINLAND: As far as being something that was interesting - this I noticed when I was a child - I'm a big fan of animation in general, and - but I was accustomed to seeing - the only people talking in cartoons are the ones who are the main characters talking to each other. It struck me in "The Point" there's a lot of little asides in the crowd scenes where just what you'd call bit players are talking to each other, and they're not interacting with the main characters at all. I'd noticed that as a child to be something, you know, oh, this is different. This is cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POINT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You know, he's polite and he's well-mannered and he's very...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He may be, but would you want your daughter to marry...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, you're baiting me.

K NILSSON: I noticed that, too, because it has a little bit of almost a mature sense to it. Like, it's almost like an adult layer. There's, like, this adult commentary happening of these characters in the background that murmur. And they kind of turn to the other and say, well this, you know, he's like, oh yeah, well, you know...

LOOKINLAND: Did you hear about the kid?

K NILSSON: Yeah, did you hear about that kid, Oblio?

LOOKINLAND: Oh, yeah...

K NILSSON: Terrible.

LOOKINLAND: Terrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POINT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It could be a toughie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) No, you really think so?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Conspiracy's no laughing matter.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Hard way to go, is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Could be for someone like Arrow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You know, he doesn't look like the conspiratorial type, though.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) He's got a record long as his tail.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) That long, huh?

K NILSSON: That concept to have these murmuring characters around, I always found that to be really funny.

SIMON: What do you notice about the music? Kiefo Nilsson, you're a musician and I gather you play songs from, "The Point."

K NILSSON: Yeah. I've produced a concert of the material several times, and my main commentary on it is that it's very - it accomplishes what it sets out to do in a very minimalist way. So it really is a testament to the power of a great melody and great lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU SLEEPING?")

H NILSSON: (Singing) Are you sleeping? Can you hear me? Do you know if I am by your side?

K NILSSON: There's some interesting kind of things with the tonality because it's almost entirely major chords and a couple dominant chords and only one minor chord, which for any musician out there would kind of go, OK, I understand that. To the non-musicians, it's a little bit different to do things that way. Despite that, it still creates a lot of emotional depth because the melodies go to so many different places.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to a moment from the music, if we can. This is a song we hear just as Oblio has been banished to the Pointless Forest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK ABOUT YOUR TROUBLES")

H NILSSON: (Singing) Sit beside the breakfast table. Think about your troubles. Pour yourself a cup of tea, then think about the bubbles. You can take your teardrops and drop them in a teacup.

SIMON: We can see teardrops falling into a teacup then into the river, eaten by fishes, as the song has it, then a whale that dies and falls to the riverbed to decompose. Extraordinary song, isn't it, Kiefo?

K NILSSON: Yeah and probably my favorite on the record. And again, to speak to the music of it, it's just four chords. Despite that, the song itself is a journey and it really does go places.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK ABOUT YOUR TROUBLES")

H NILSSON: (Singing) Think about your troubles.

SIMON: So 50 years on, are there messages that people ought to hear about acceptance, equality?

K NILSSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that it is, essentially, a timeless story. It hits on a lot of different themes with - you have the sort of hero's journey of the coming-of-age journey. You have the boy who goes on an adventure with his dog, you know, that kinship there. Then the themes beyond that of prejudice and acceptance and our perspective, I think, is one of the biggest - how different perspective on the same situation can create different either problems or solutions.

LOOKINLAND: And that you have a point, even if it doesn't necessarily show on the outside.

SIMON: Even if you have a round head, you don't have to see somebody's point to know they have one.

K NILSSON: Yeah.

SIMON: Mike Lookinland and Kiefo Nilsson speaking to us about the 50th anniversary of Harry Nilsson's "The Point." The ultimate addition release of the movie comes out on Blu-ray next week. Thanks so much for being with us.

LOOKINLAND: It's great to be here.

K NILSSON: Yeah, thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND MY ARROW")

H NILSSON: (Singing) And in the morning when I wake up, she may be gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.