Monday, 12 September 2011
TIFF 2011 - Paul Williams Still Alive
Paul Williams Still Alive (2011) dir. Stephen Kessler
Starring: Paul Williams, Stephen Kessler, Johnny Carson, Karen Carpenter, Richard Carpenter, Barbara Streisand, Dick Clark, Kermit the Frog, Angie Dickinson, Peter Lawford, Telly Savalas, Tony Randal, Jack Klugman, Burt Reynolds, Ed McMahon
By Greg Klymkiw
1975 was the best Christmas of my life. I was 15 years old and I saw Brian DePalma’s satirical rock musical Phantom of the Paradise at least 20 times over a period of two weeks. I saw it so many times afterwards, I still have no idea how many times I’ve seen it – not just on home video, but mostly – throughout the late 70s and early 80s on BIG SCREENS.
I wasn’t the only one.
At least not in my hometown – my glorious winter city.
The movie was a huge flop all over the world – save for two cities; Paris, France and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
In Winnipeg it played first-run, non-stop, six performances a day in a 1000-seat movie theatre for several months. Even when Phantom of the Paradise ended its first-run engagement, it was held-over, moved-over, re-released and revived in one-screen stand-alone suburban cinemas and drive-in movie theatres all over the city. It was played endlessly at Winnipeg repertory cinemas, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Manitoba Museum Auditorium, all the University film series and wherever, whenever movies were screened publicly on film. Hell, once I got a chance to program a repertory cinema all on my lonesome, I not only played the movie to packed houses, but watched it on occasion in the very cinema I was running.
It’s a great movie, to be sure. DePalma’s delicious trash sensibilities and style hit more than a few chords with me and others of my generation who grew up – in our very formative years – being raised on Universal Horror, Hammer Horror and Roger Corman horror pictures. The movie tapped into everything that made horror movies so special – working not just on the level of satirical humour, but like any great satire, it worked on the same levels as the thing that was being satirized. Even cooler was it’s story – a very special amalgam of Phantom of the Opera and Faust, but with rock music.
(Another reason was definitely Jessica Harper. What 15-year old boy DIDN’T have a crush on her as the sexy songstress Phoenix and what 15-year-old girl DIDN’T want to be Jessica Harper?)
Well, believe it or not, it was a pretty cool city in those days. On the surface, a sleepy Midwestern Canadian city in the middle of nowhere on the flat prairies, but with a heavy concentration of the coolest counter-culture in a four-to-five-block area downtown – GREAT record shops, comic book stores, pinball parlours, head shops, grind houses, greasy spoons, sleazy manor hotels (by law – men only in both the rooms and the bars) and this entire childhood playground of COOL included a bevy of porno cinemas and massage parlours. In spite of all the “nastier” elements, it was a surprisingly safe place for kids to go on their own by bus. (At the age of 12, I was watching Hammer horror, motorcycle movies and beach party picture triple bills in grindhouses stinking of urine, cum and vomit – staring wide-eyed at ratty old screens filled with large-breasted Swedish women baring their milky necks for Christopher Lee's fangs while toothless hookers gave gum jobs to old men all around me.)
I also think Winnipeg’s physical and cultural isolation played a big part in all this. Genre appreciation is big with kids everywhere, but in Winnipeg, there was NO American television and many of us didn’t get cable television in our homes until we were already in our mid-teens. Well, there was ONE American station – a border town on the USA side one-hour south – Pembina, North Dakota to be precise. A tiny independent television station called KCND-TV set up shop to beam its way to the greedy rabbit-ear antennae of Winnipeg boob tubes to cleanup on advertising dollars. With no network affiliations, the station ran old horror movies whenever it could – especially on Saturday nights after syndicated broadcasts of Perry Mason re-runs on every Winnipeg kid’s favourite show, Chiller Thriller.
Winnipeg was also a cool music town. Some were old enough to have seen Neil Young or The Guess Who – live: in Winnipeg, in their burgeoning years. Even if we didn't, we knew they were Winnipeggers. Neil went to Kelvin High School while Burton Cummings went to St. John's. Randy Bachmann's folks lived around the corner from my house. Burton Cummings Mom worked in the downtown Eaton's department store. All the school dances and sock hops and coffee houses featured live music from soon-to-be-rock-legends and all those others who should/could have been. (My Dad even gave Burton Cummings an early gig playing a riverboat cruise with the legendary Toilet Rockers Gary and Blair MacLean.)
The ‘Peg was – “shakin’ all over” big time.
Young 'Peggers were (at least I like to think) so genre and music savvy at just the right time in just the right place to turn Phantom of the Paradise into a huge cult film.
The prime ingredient of Phantom of the Paradise that connected with all of us was none other than the astounding music composed by Paul Williams.
His score was so popular in Winnipeg that the soundtrack album went Gold in Canada – solely from its sales in Winnipeg. (I still have MY mint condition sealed vinyl as well as an original well-worn copy - both of which I purchased at Gambles, the long-dead discount department store in Winnipeg's north end.)
Williams’s score was boss and spun at many high school dances and on local radio stations. Like DePalma’s cinematic approach to the material, Williams satirized so many beloved genres of rock music and, sounding like a skipped record here, great satire rides the delicate line between parody and the thing being satirized.
It’s a score that works on its own as truly great music.
Winnipeggers – initially through Phantom of the Paradise – became the most rapturous fans of Paul Williams. A few months after the movie opened and went through the rough, a hastily arranged series of sold out Paul Williams concerts played at Winnipeg’s majestic Centennial Concert Hall. Williams must have felt like Jesus Christ on the Second Coming – or, better than Jesus, The Beatles. That’s no exaggeration.
Phantom of the Paradise was our way into Paul Williams. He not only wrote the score that Winnipeggers drove to Gold Record status, but he starred in the movie as Swan, the slimy music promoter who signed his clients to deals with the Devil himself. And we loved him. He wasn’t so much the villain you loved to hate, but the villain you loved to love.
WHY Paul Williams became such an idol in Winnipeg is beautifully explained in Paul Williams Still Alive and it also happens to explain why director Kessler was a rapturous fan - so much so that he was driven to craft this extraordinary documentary.
And Paul Williams was ubiquitous. He was fucking everywhere. We now had cable TV all over the city and there he was – endless appearances on endless popular AMERICAN programs: Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Police Woman (getting blown away by Angie-hubba-hubba-Dickinson), The Odd Couple, Sonny and Cher – the list went on.
No luck finding Paul Williams on the CBC, though. Canada's national public broadcaster was too busy producing and programming shows featuring inbred East Coast fiddlers and, God Help Us! - Hymn Sing. (That said, we kind of loved those too. Winnipeg's water pipes were lined with asbestos for more years than most of us are too frightened to acknowledge.)
Some of us even went so far as to dig into his back catalogue of song writing and were stunned that he wrote hit music for Three Dog Night AND The Muppets. And while not all of us might have been as enamoured with his hits for The Carpenters, Helen Reddy and Barbara Streisand – we sure never begrudged him that – especially not when he began recording and performing his own renditions of the songs which, I can assure you we all preferred.
Paul Williams was so high on the radar.
Then he dropped off.
This is what precipitated and inspired the terrific new feature documentary by Stephen Kessler, Paul Williams Still Alive. Kessler, as he explains in his heart-felt narration had an equally rapturous adoration for Williams until eventually life moved on and Williams became a fleeting memory. A chance Internet surf brought Williams back onto his radar. He eagerly wanted to know more about his childhood idol. What happened? Where was he now? What was he up to?
What does a fan do in such circumstances? He makes a movie about it.
Kessler was in a good position to do so. He wasn’t a mere fan-boy with a camcorder – he was a bonafide filmmaker with a successful career as a TV commercial director, an Academy Award nominated short drama and two features which, for me, place him in the pantheon of one of the strangest filmmakers who should have been well on the road to some kind of greatness. I actually love Kessler’s first feature Vegas Vacation with Chevy Chase. What can I say? I loved all the Vacation pictures (except European Vacation) and the Vegas instalment especially made me soil myself with laughter. Then he made The Independent, one of the strangest features to NEVER find an audience, an oddball mockumentary about a Grade-Z moviemaker played by Jerry Stiller that, at the very least, should have become far better known than it is to geeks everywhere.
Great documentaries tell stories. Imparting information A&E Biography-style is mind-numbingly dull. That said, great subject matter (which Paul Williams assuredly is) ALSO do not make for great documentaries. Every year at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto I hear people extolling the virtues of documentaries because of what they’re about. Sorry wags, pundits, critics and worst of all, commissioning editors – just because the subject matter is great doesn’t mean it’s great FILMMAKING.
Grab a fucking brain, people!
Kessler, however, is a real filmmaker and this documentary not only tells a great story but it is first-rate moviemaking!
First and foremost it does all the stuff it needs to do – we get all the biographical details past and present and we most certainly get a keen sense of WHO Paul Williams was and is. If that is all you want out of the picture, it is most certainly there and then some.
What makes it special is not just what it is, but what it became during the filmmaking process and most importantly because Kessler is a real filmmaker who ultimately knew he had to grab the opportunity – if not on a conscious level at first, certainly at a gut level due to the fact that he’s the real thing and not one of these lunkhead losers with either an agenda and/or lucks into a great subject, grabs a camera and stumbles into a movie that connects with people who should know better.
This is a movie about friendship. We see it happen before our very eyes. We see a director who clearly loves his subject matter. As he begins the film, Kessler THINKS he knows where to take it, but because of his innate cinematic sensibilities, his fumbles become a part of the story (like his interrupting Paul Williams while he tells a great personal story to cleave out his own agenda and, in the process, pissing his subject off). At one point, Kessler is forced to follow Williams around from a distance. It’s a hilarious scene and kind of touching because as the shaky-cam pathetically captures its subject we can hear Williams and those with him commenting on Kessler’s doggedness. Williams is both annoyed and strangely grudging about the fact that Kessler means business.
In a very cool moment, Williams finally just tells Kessler to be in the movie with him because it’s the only way he feels comfortable participating in the project. Kessler wisely jumps on this. He is, in his own delightful geek-fan-boy way, a pretty good subject himself.
So now, not only do we get a chance to follow Paul Williams on his current gigs, meet his friends, associates, family and others, but also we see a friendship developing between the two men. We learn – within the context of this developing friendship – about Williams struggle with drugs, alcohol and personal relations. This is what gives the movie that added frisson because it’s not just about the relationship between two artists, one exploring, the other revealing – but we see two men getting closer as the movie progresses and we eventually get a central subject who lowers his guard and responds – not as a subject, but a friend.
One could argue all documentary directors, and to a certain extent news reporters, operate. Well, they do. It takes a real filmmaker to propel it to cinema.
By the end of the film, one learns as much about Paul Williams as one does about Kessler and because of this we get a far more evocative portrait of one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century.
And guess what? He’s still alive, he’s still performing and he’s still writing music.
Hell, we’re in a new century now. Who knows what will happen next? The movie gives a sense that whatever it is it’s just beginning, but that it’s all good.
It’s a great story!
Paul Williams Still Alive is being unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011) and will no doubt be theatrically released very soon.