As a journalistic genre, Paul Williams Still Alive is a where-are-they-now? story. It catches up with a celebrity, once ubiquitous on TV, radio and/or movies (all three, in Williams' case), now forgotten.
But of course, in Winnipeg, Paul Williams will be remembered forever as one of the stars and the songwriter of the 1974 cult film Phantom of the Paradise. Writer-director Stephen Kessler (a longtime commercial director with Vegas Vacation and his own cult film, The Independent to his credit), upon discovering Williams was very much alive in 2006, flew to Winnipeg to meet his boyhood idol when Williams participated in the Phantom fan convention Phantompalooza II.
From there, Paul Williams Still Alive turns into a double odyssey, going backward and forward in time. As a teen, Kessler closely identified with Williams' lonely musical milieu (Rainy Days and Mondays) yet found him an inspirational figure for his ability to be the life of the party on many talk shows, especially Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, where Williams logged more than 50 appearances.
He does his best to befriend Williams and succeeds in spite of himself. After Phantompalooza, Kessler trailed in Williams' diminutive shadow off and on for years.
But examining Williams' career proves to be difficult. Like many of his contemporaries, Williams succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he cleaned himself up to the point of actually becoming an addictions counsellor. Understandably, Williams would rather enjoy his modest, enjoyable life as it is now because the past is painful -- and besides, as he tells Kessler: "I am so over talking about Paul Williams."
In documenting Williams' past, Kessler makes stunningly good use of clips. One of Williams' big breaks was when the Carpenters recorded his song We've Only Just Begun. Kessler summarizes the moment with a clip from a godawful TV movie, The Karen Carpenter Story, showing an actor as Richard Carpenter grooving to the bank commercial on which the song was first heard, while Mrs. Carpenter (Louise Fletcher) tries to settle her son down by offering him Quaaludes. The combination of music, drugs and cheesy melodrama not only illustrates the turning point in the songwriter's life, it is a succinct summary of the culture in which Williams would operate in the '70s and '80s.
Another clip of The Mike Douglas Show presents Williams in co-hosting duties introducing an appallingly high Peter Lawford. In the present, Williams explains that Lawford asked to be invited because he wanted to score some particularly good cocaine while in Philadelphia. (This is a movie that can induce shock at what you might have missed in the TV of the '70s.)
By turns, absorbing, funny, moving and cringe-inducing, this is a movie demonstrating Williams could be celebrated as much for his hard-won wisdom as for his songwriting abilities.
It is a warts-and-all view of Williams, but Kessler gets as good as he gives, exposing a few warts of his own.
Excerpts of select reviews of Paul Williams Still Alive:
The insightful, rueful, intensely self-critical and self-aware Williams delivers a harsh look at his own accomplishments, as well as at Kessler's process. Unwilling both to feign obliviousness and to play to the camera, Williams calls the project the "Steve and Paulie show" and makes their tensely artificial relationship the core of the story.
-- Richard Brody, The New Yorker
The oft-hilarious push-and-pull between director and subject ... effectively hacks away at the celebrity-enthusiast divide. By the end of this perceptive dual portrait, both men are content to merely be human.
-- Keith Ulrich, Time Out New York
Watching is like going through an old scrapbook with the singer. There's great footage of his highs, and his highs... drugs and alcohol derailed his career. Williams' agenda sometimes clashes with the filmmaker's but the friction only makes it better.
-- Betsy Sharkey, L.A. Times
Filmmaker Stephen Kessler has made a thoroughly satisfying, always engaging and unusually perceptive doc almost in spite of himself -- and in the face no little resistance on the part of his subject, which would be the once very famous singer/songwriter/actor/entertainer Paul Williams.
-- Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter