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From Barbra Streisand to “Ishtar:” The Strange, Funny Story of “Paul Williams: Still Alive”

From Barbra Streisand to "Ishtar:" The Strange, Funny Story of "Paul Williams: Still Alive"

indieWIRE hosted a series of Q&As at TIFF’s Filmmakers’ Lounge. Here’s the highlights from managing editor Brian Brooks’ conversation with director Stephen Kessler and Paul Williams, star and subject of the documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive.”

Paul Williams claims the TIFF-debuted recovery documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive” resembles a home movie spun out of control. A 4-and-a-half-year passion project by childhood fan Stephen Kessler, the majority of the film was shot on a hi-def camera without much of a crew. Last Saturday afternoon both were in the Filmmaker’s Lounge to speak with indieWIRE’s Brian Brooks about the ever-changing music industry, addiction, and the premiere of the new film.

Williams has composed the score and written the music and lyrics for hundreds of films, TV shows, and pop artists, the result being several Academy Awards and a distinct fanbase. His most notable works arose in the 70s: The Carpenters’ singles “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”; “Evergreen” from A Star Is Born; and the classic “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. Williams, while laughing embarrassingly, declared that the only work of his from the 80s people would recognize is the soundtrack of comedy film Ishtar.

Kessler admits he was a huge fan of Williams in his younger years. He has fond memories of watching Paul makes jokes on “The Tonight Show.” Williams did 48 Tonight Shows but says he can only remember 6 of them.

Years ago, having slipped into a moment of reverie, Kessler began to wonder if his childhood hero had passed away. This caused him to telephone Williams, which eventually led to their collaboration with this film. When Kessler contacted Williams about the possibility of doing a documentary, Williams said he interpreted the notion as some sort of “Please sir, may I have another cup of fame?”.

“I thought documentary-style shooting was inauthentic and bullshit”, said Williams about rejecting the regular-style shooting and urging Kessler to color outside the lines; the director even steps in front of the camera near the close of the movie. The goal of the doc, they agreed on, was to make a picture about recovery. Williams set out to show all the awful stuff from the past. They both spoke of “poking the bear”: retreating back into the cave of Williams’ troubled days of alcoholism and really examining the emptiness of fame.

Williams’ prime years are described as a very extended blur. “You know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade”, he half-jokes. There was mention of his family feeling neglected during lengthy streaks of constant drunkenness. Williams denied the idea that substance abuse might fuel creativity within a musician’s work, at least in his case. “Alcohol gave me the power to deal with the rest of the world.” Fortunately now, Williams is devoted to recovering and has lived many years sober. He’s worked on programs with the focus of helping substance abuse addicts. Through his tone of voice it’s clear that these years were a dark time in his life, but a time that is still essential to remember. That’s something this film achieves… maybe the bear had an itch that was longing to be poked.

Williams is currently happy, hardworking, and still alive. He spoke of the internet’s role in the music industry, his presidency at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and the amount of talent he believes exists in music today (he mentions being big fans of Daft Punk and My Morning Jacket).

Kessler believes this “Raging Bull of music” works for fans of Paul because it allows them to see Paul now as opposed to the legend before. Speaking at the Filmmaker’s Lounge, we were privileged a glimpse of the true charismatic, insightful musician.

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