Harry Nilsson is in the midst of an unlikely comeback. Netflix’s new hit series Russian Doll, in which a video-game developer dies over and over again on her 36th birthday, features his charming “Gotta Get Up” on endless loop. This has sparked interest in the Seventies singer-songwriter, and spawned articles informing viewers just who sings “that song” from the show.
But in his day, Nilsson was far from obscure. When the Beatles were asked who their favorite American artist was at a 1968 press conference, John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t hesitate before naming Nilsson. He wrote one of the Monkees’ greatest songs, “Cuddly Toy” (“You’re not the only choo-choo train/That was left out in the rain/The day after Santa came”), and won a Grammy in 1973 for his bellowing vocal performance in “Without You.”
Beginning with Midnight Cowboy in 1969, Nilsson’s music has often featured on soundtracks. Whether it’s Meg Ryan decorating a Christmas tree to the somber “Remember (Christmas)” in You’ve Got Mail or Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock screaming “midnight margaritas!” and drunkenly dancing to “Coconut” in Practical Magic, Nilsson’s whimsical melodies and intense vocal range have enhanced on-screen images for decades. And now we get to hear him greet Natasha Lyonne back from the dead in Russian Doll, over and over again.
Released in 1971, “Gotta Get Up” is the the opening track to Nilsson Schmilsson. “From that opening, the way the piano starts, you could sense that this was gonna be something special,” recalled producer Richard Perry in the definitive documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? The song, which you can watch Nilsson perform in the video above, is about waking up on the right side of the bed, despite reality. The lyrics allude to nostalgia for the past and reflect on the process of aging, which stand in stark contrast to the cheerful, optimistic melody. “We used to carry on and drink and do the rock & roll/We never thought we’d get older/We never thought it’d grow cold, but now …”
In the same way Bill Murray wakes up to “I Got You, Babe” every morning in Groundhog Day, Natasha Lyonne’s character Nadia keeps finding herself staring at her reflection and washing her hands to “Gotta Get Up” in the bathroom on her birthday. “I wanted somebody who was connected to a lineage of a certain kind of difficulty, or who gave you a certain effect,” the star and co-creator explained to Rolling Stone. “The sound of their voice would in and of itself be a reminder: a juxtaposition of the unpleasantness and the grandeur of the human experience on a daily basis. Harry Nilsson, specifically, encapsulates that.”