The once prominent singer-songwriter Paul Williams, writer of such great songs as 'We've Only Just Begun' and 'Rainbow Connection' and star of the cult musical 'Phantom of the Paradise', who became horribly overexposed in the celebrity zeitgeist of the '70s and quickly disappeared after the '80s, attempts resurrection by filmmaker/superfan Stephen Kessler. What emerges is less a documentary of Williams himself than an unintentional story about the relationship between filmmaker and subject. While the magnificent 'Searching For Sugarman' seemed to be the film Kessler was striving for - a rescue film of Williams from depressive obscurity - the film is most admirable for Kessler’s ability to adapt to his subject’s unpredictability and closed-offness and to find its story along the way.
Paul Williams: Still Alive (2011) dir. Stephen Kessler
By Alan Bacchus
The image of Paul Williams is unmistakeable. He's extraordinarily short due to male hormone supplements he received in his childhood, which ironically stunted his growth. This event, as well as his tempestuous relationship with his father, an alcoholic who frequently drove drunk with his kids and who subsequently died in a car accident when William was 13, is recounted by Paul, but quickly shut down by Kessler, the director, in favour of questions about his celebrity. This curious interaction between filmmaker and subject is the first hint of the unconventionality of the filmmaking approach.
Why Kessler wasn’t interested in hearing Williams’ story, which clearly relates to the man’s struggles with drug abuse later in life, is strangely short-sighted. Kessler is clear to show us Williams’ disappointment as well, which for the rest of the film closes Williams off to much of Kessler’s desired access.
As Kessler follows Williams around his celebrity circuit gigs, his inability to get candid footage of Williams as a has-been celebrity is palpable. He compensates for his lack of drama by using his intrusive voiceover, which explains everything that is going wrong with his film. It’s an off-putting method, being aware of the filmmaker at all times and aware of his own shortcomings, and it doesn’t make for a story. But it seems to be the only option left for Kessler to make his film.
Gradually we watch Williams warm up to the camera and slowly reveal himself, thus validating Kessler’s approach. By completely stripping away the artifice or barrier between the camera and subject to the audience, Kessler is able to show Williams with the honesty that both he and Williams desire. He clearly had preconceptions of how Williams sees himself, which creates a unique character arc, the idea of the filmmaker himself learning and growing as a character. Kessler does manage to get Williams to self-acknowledge himself candidly and complete the film’s examination of celebrity.
In between the rocky beginnings and cathartic reconciliation, Kessler shows us a fun slice of '70s celebrity stardom. Williams is a man who started out as a creative songwriting genius, overcame his physical restrictions and found himself sharing space with the elite of the pop culture world. His downfall, evidenced dramatically by his coke-out epic-fail performance on the Merv Griffin show in the '80s, shows Williams as a victim to the powerful effects of celebrity, ego and drugs with the adulterous behaviour striking precisely at Williams’ own insecurities. It’s a familiar story but always a fascinating one.
Paul Williams: Still Alive is available on VOD via Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Bright House, iTunes, VUDU, YouTube, Amazon, Sony (Playstation), Microsoft (Zune,Xbox), Blockbuster, AT&T, Direct TV and DISH.