Does the name Paul Williams mean anything to you? Does it ring a bell? No? How about these songs: “Rainbow Connection,” “Evergreen,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Old Fashioned Love Song“? Williams is the legendary singer-songwriter behind those tunes, and a former ’70s superstar and personality, who made appearances on just about every variety show, sitcom and talk show during that era of silly decadence. Maybe you know him from his cult classic movie “Phantom of the Paradise.” With his diminutive stature, blond bowl cut and ever-present tinted aviators, he’s not exactly the most glamorous ’70s celeb, but he is one of the most distinctive and beloved by the fans who have managed to remember him through the years. In the new documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” director Steve Kessler, one of those fans from the ’70s is surprised to discover Williams is still alive and kicking, and sets out to get to know Williams and see how he’s doing after all these years. The result is a documentary that is moving, heartwarming and a delightful exploration of a truly unlikely friendship.
“Paul Williams: Still Alive” is a documentary that is about the documentary itself. Kessler foregrounds his process and it becomes the real subject of the film. Several years ago, Kessler (director of “Vegas Vacation” and “The Independent”) went online to purchase a Paul Williams CD to feed a bit of his childhood nostalgia and love for all things ’70s TV, knowing Williams had been lost to drugs and alcohol. He was surprised to discover that Williams was still alive, sober for 15 years, and performing, despite having fallen off the mainstream radar. Kessler sets off for a Williams concert in Winnipeg, Canada, camera in tow, where he captures Williams and his adoring tearful fans in action.
Spurred by a desire to understand Williams, Kessler becomes his de facto stalker, forcing himself and his camera crew on the singer. Williams is cold at first, rejecting his advances, and it’s clear the the only way in which Kessler might make the doc is if he allows the process to be the focus of the movie, warts and all. Kessler is single minded in his mission, even following Williams on a tour through the Philippines (he’s “Justin Bieber” huge, as Kessler states, in the Philippines), despite his phobias about Al Qaeda, the food, terrorists, etc. His persistence pays off, as the two men bond and Williams lets him into his world. Centering the movie around this transparency of process is a smart conceit that keeps the film focused and the through line clear. The awkward moments that arise from Kessler’s stalking are also amusing and illuminating.
His songs are monster hits, well known and beloved by many, but with a true sadness and longing that so many people, Kessler included, relate to. When Kessler questions him about his fame, why he did so many appearances in the ’70s, what made him want to do all the cheesy things like “Hollywood Squares” and “The Gong Show” and “Circus of the Stars,” Williams says that everything he did made him feel “more special and less different.” As a child, Williams was given growth hormone shots that stunted his growth (he’s 5’2”), lost his father to a drunk driving accident, and struggled to make it as an actor after graduating from high school. He certainly never led a charmed life, and his feelings are expressed beautifully in his songs, which stand the test of time (just try to resist Karen Carpenter singing “We’ve Only Just Begun”).
Kessler wants to know how Williams feels no longer being as famous as he was in the ’70s, when he was a household name and played himself on all manner of sitcoms, was a regular on “The Tonight Show” and hugged Barbra Streisand at the podium while they accepted the Academy Award for “Evergreen” (from “A Star is Born”). The fact of the matter is that Williams doesn’t want to look back. It’s painful for him to see himself on these talk shows, coked to the gills, smiling smugly and glad-handing with celebrities. He may not be as famous now, but he’s performing to this day, actively involved in recovery activism, and oh yeah, just got elected the president of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). Even though he doesn’t want his family to see him at the height of his debauchery and addiction, he lets Kessler mine his past, recorded on VHS tapes forgotten in a storage unit, confident in his own focus on the future, and the result is a story that is truly inspiring. As he says at the end of the film, “the last couple of years have really fucked up the end of your movie, and I love that.”
The sweet friendship that develops throughout the film is another plus of Kessler’s decision to make himself and the documentary an integral part of telling Williams’ story. Williams and Kessler were both at the Q&A after the screening and their mutual affection is clear. Williams seemed thrilled with the doc, appreciative that his past had been commemorated and celebrated, warts and all. He’s also working more than ever, and even mentioned during the Q&A that he is working with Daft Punk on their new album. Could this be the beginning of a Paul Williams renaissance? [B+]