Sunday, June 03, 2012

“Paul Williams: Still Alive”–Movie Review


This weekend, my movie class began its bonus screenings for the Summer Semester with the documentary “Paul Williams:  Still Alive”, about the singer-songwriter Paul Williams. 



When a fan of the singer-songwriter Paul Williams discovers his idol isn’t dead, he decides to shoot a documentary about the star’s life – but when Williams is resistant to record the more sordid details of his past, will the documentarian have enough footage for his film? 



In the 1970’s, the singer-songwriter Paul Williams was a ubiquitous presence on television and in films.  Famous more for his compositions than for his singing ability, he gained acclaim, fortune and awards for his many popular songs that were recorded by such diverse recording artists as The Carpenters, Barbra Streisand and David Bowie.  A frequent guest on talk shows such as Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and especially Johnny Carson, Williams’ reputation grew as a raconteur and comedian as well as a composer; these appearances led to many acting jobs on various TV series and movies. 

Unfortunately for Williams, all of the success went to his head and by the 1980’s, he had more or less dropped out of sight due to substance abuse – alcohol and cocaine being his addictions of choice.  A number of people – including many of his most ardent fans – incorrectly assumed that Williams had died.  After a couple of failed marriages and downward spiraling career directly attributable to his alcohol and drug abuse, Williams had lost much of his fortune – a significant amount of which also went to feeding his habit.  Having hit rock bottom, he went to rehab and has been sober since 1991. 

Subsequently remarrying to a woman who has dedicated her life to work with him to help rebuild his career, Williams now tours around the world performing and making personal appearances at various conventions.  For the past number of years, he has served as both President and Chairman of the Board at ASCAP, where he helps to ensure that nearly half a million musicians, composers and lyricists get the royalties due them for the playing and/or performance of their songs.  With fame behind him, Williams shuns the spotlight these days – and with that being the case, can the filmmaker coax him into coming clean about his past to provide enough content for his documentary?



Director Stephen Kessler has created an unusual – and in many ways – unorthodox documentary in that he has insinuated much of himself into the story, almost in a Michael Moore–esque manner (only without the political axe to grind).  Kessler, who narrates the movie, has almost as much screen time as his subject.  The result is that he has made “Paul Williams:  Still Alive” nearly as much about him as it is about Williams.  You can either view this as a quirky, daring and original style or you can see it as creepy, obnoxious and egomaniacal.  I experienced it as the latter rather than the former. 

Will anyone be interested in a documentary about this sensation from the 1970’s?  Clearly, this movie is targeted to a very specific audience – namely, people who are old enough to remember Williams when he was on the scene back in those days.  If you believe the documentary, he’s still got quite a following around the world – YouTube, for example, is littered with people who are familiar with his songs and they gladly perform them in their own inimitable way.  Williams definitely has a fascinating story to tell, but as a reluctant subject, both he and Kessler collaborate in sabotaging the effort. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed the documentary’s subject, Paul Williams.  The 5’2” Williams, now 71, looks every year of his age, likely attributable to the hard-partying lifestyle he enjoyed for many years during the 1970’s and 80’s.  Although his youthful gnome-like appearance is long gone, he has not lost either his ability to tell a good story or to crack the occasional joke.  About working with Streisand, he reinforced how difficult she can be, but credited her with providing him with much of the success he went on to experience.  Once, when Johnny Carson asked him what it was like to work with Streisand, he replied, “It’s like trying to have a picnic on an airport runway”. 



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