Singer/songwriter Paul Williams, as Stephen Kessler’s brilliant (and occasionally heartbreaking) new documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive” teaches us, is indeed, still very much alive. The versatile entertainer has had a profound impact on popular culture, writing songs for The Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” as the documentary points out, originated from a television jingle), Helen Reddy, and Elvis Presley. Williams made nearly constant appearances on 1970s television, not only as a performer and guest on countless talk shows but also in episodic dramas like “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Love Boat.” He wrote “Rainbow Connection” for “The Muppet Movie,” won an Oscar for “Evergreen” from the Streisand/Kristofferson “A Star Is Born,” and wrote the songs, score, and co-starred in Brian De Palma’s cult classic “Phantom of the Paradise.” We sat down with Williams and Kessler to discuss making the film, how it became a buddy movie between the two of them, the Muppets, and Williams’ involvement in the new Daft Punk record.
We wondered what the two men thought the documentary would turn out to be at the beginning of the process, versus what it ended up being upon completion, since part of the fun of watching the film is the kind of evolutionary twists and turns it takes. (In a way, “Paul Williams: Still Alive” is very much a companion piece to this summer’s other buzzy, totally brilliant music doc “Searching for Sugar Man.”) Williams thought it would go down a familiar track.
“I thought, ‘This guy would be thrilled if he saw me living in a trailer behind a junkyard playing at the Red Lion with an organist and a sock puppet of Kermit that I was singing ‘Rainbow Connection’ to,’” Williams said wryly. “I thought he wanted to make one of those ‘where are they now’ drug-addled tragedies of fame gone sour. And I had no interest in that. I said from the beginning that I don’t think there’s anything more pathetic than some little old man saying, ‘Please sir can I have another cup of fame?’ It’s not who I am. The idea of poking the bear again wasn’t something that I didn’t want to do.” Williams now (rightfully) describes the film as: “a road movie meets ‘Celebrity Rehab.’”
Kessler initially had a very different approach to the subject matter, as well, with a kind of “VH1 Storytellers” framework in place. “What I thought originally was that since Paul is such a great singer/songwriter and a lot of his songs have these lush seventies arrangements, and I would have loved to have Paul record his songs with stripped down vocals and maybe make a movie that’s following Paul around through airports and buying toothpaste,” Kessler explained. “But as I started shooting the movie and hanging out with him and I started to see that this guy who I started hanging out with was way more interesting than the guy who I loved as a kid.”
What’s so fascinating about the doc is that it becomes a kind of buddy movie, as Kessler and his incessant crew end up warming Williams’ heart, and he lets them him in on some very personal moments and stories (and, hilariously, inviting Kesller to spend the night at his house, which he greets with the enthusiasm of a sleepover-bound child). Williams put it beautifully when he told us, “I think what’s nice about the movie is that the journey of the filmmaker and the subject kind of became the movie, and what usually winds up on the cutting room floor, became the heart of the movie.” And, indeed, Kessler tried to do a version of the film where he omitted himself. “I edited a version of the movie with a long hunk of it – about an hour – with me not in [it],” Kessler. “It wasn’t getting through who Paul was [or] how Paul acted towards me and how that changed.”
They both point to a moment in the film where the subject and the documentarian break down the walls. It’s when Paul, scheduled to do a series of concerts in the Philippines, invites Kessler along for the ride. Kessler, spurred on by news reports of Al Qaeda activity in the area, practically seizes up – he doesn’t eat, he is visibly nervous, and Williams comforts him. “I think in the Philippines, he’s so scared, he’s so convinced Al Qaeda is going to get us,” Williams (who had been there “many times before”) says with a chuckle. “If I had the slightest impression that was going to happen, I never would have gone.”
Kessler, who likens the situation to being like “ ‘The Seven Samurai’ and the wise warrior taking the little clown through the jungle,” said that, “One thing is I tried to make it very honest and very transparent, and that scene on the bus in the Philippines when Paul starts to talk to me about his childhood, I thought, ‘Whoa, now I have a film.’”
Both are proud of the finished product, although Williams admitted that, “There’s a lot in the film that’s really hard for me to watch.” The eventual DVD/Blu-ray will have even more stuff, including a moment Kessler was particularly proud of. “There’s a seminal episode of ‘The Odd Couple’ where the daughter falls in love with Paul Williams and goes to follow him on tour,” Kessler explained. “And Paul wrote this beautiful song for Felix’s daughter to explain what it feels like to become a father. And I thought it would be great to put that song to scenes with him and his daughter. But there wasn’t a place for it in this story.”
Another amazing aspect of the film is the sense of rediscovery – there’s all this pop culture miscellanea that makes its way into the movie that is really stunning. Williams quipped: “He has an attitude about reintroducing and I had an attitude of ‘we don’t need to do that.’ ” But Kessler was proud of a number of moments, particularly a clip from an episode of “The Tonight Show,” where Williams appeared alongside Robert Blake (a moment he remembers vividly), and the use of "Time & Tide," a song from long-forgotten movie “The Lifeguard.” “I feel like I was able to use that song in my film the way they weren’t able to use it in ‘The Lifeguard,’” Kessler said.
As to what they’re working on now, Williams is currently the head of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which protects the rights of songwriters. (At one point, when the discussion turned to getting the rights for all the footage and music in the movie, Williams said, “It’s interesting he’s doing this with the president of ASCAP. It’s like ‘we’re watching you, young man…’ ”) He also has worked on the forthcoming, still unannounced Daft Punk album, which is something he couldn’t really talk about. “They’ve got me on complete blackout,” Williams said. “They’re mixing it right now – they said hush up, don’t talk about the album. I think they’re brilliant and I love that they’re anonymous.”
We wondered if he would ever return to the world of The Muppets, after their recent resurgence in popularity (he was nominated for an Emmy, during the production of the documentary, for writing the songs and music for a recent Muppet Christmas special). “Disney sent me the script for this last one and it was such a natural for the guy from ‘Flight of the Conchords,’ ” Williams said. “And I loved what they did.” (Kessler then pointed out that Bret McKenzie thanked Williams the day after he won the Oscar.)
As for their future plans, it turns out they fully intend on working together again. “We’re looking for something to do,” Williams said. “The connection we have now, both creatively and trust-wise is so intense, that we want to do something else. And we like hanging together.”
Kessler, who has directed things like the iffy sequel “Vegas Vacation” and the indie comedy “The Independent,” feels similarly – like he had made a breakthrough, creatively, and would like to continue in the same spirit. “As a writer I hoped to do work that was personal to me that would connect with an audience,” Kessler said. “And now having done something that’s personal to me that connects with a lot of people, I don’t want to go back towards the Olsen twins movie.” Kessler paused and started: “Although…” And right on cue, Williams piped up: “If the Olsen Twins call, we’d be perfect for that!”
“Paul Williams: Still Alive” is now playing in limited release. Read our review of the film here.