Documentary Sidebar : “Paul Williams : Still Alive”

Posted: June 5, 2016 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Paul-Williams-Stil-Alive-Poster

When I was a little kid, Paul Williams was absolutely fucking everywhere. You couldn’t turn on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, or Johnny Carson without seeing him. He was a guest star on everything from cop shows like Baretta to sitcoms like The Odd Couple. He was on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island seemingly all the time. In the movies, he took everything from bit parts in big-budget flicks like Smokey And The Bandit to lead roles in singularly unique fare like Brian De Palma’s The Phantom Of The Paradise. He wrote songs for the likes of Barbara Streisand and The Carpenters and had a successful recording career of his own. And who could forget “The Rainbow Connection?”

Yup, there’s no doubt about it — Paul Williams was a positively ubiquitous presence across the entertainment spectrum. Until he wasn’t anymore. And that’s where director Stephen Kessler’s 2011 documentary Paul Williams : Still Alive (recently added to Netflix, which is how I saw it, but also available on Blu-ray and DVD) picks up the story.

maxresdefault

People definitely change a lot over the years, but the idea that Williams now shuns the limelight is a tough one to get around for people of my generation simply because for a good decade or more he literally was the limelight. But in addition to entertaining (and, of course, earning) millions, he also fell victim to the excesses of the “Hollywood lifestyle,” and booze and drugs did a number on his head, his health, and his life. Kessler’s film documents a guy who’s troubled — often and obviously painfully so — by his past, but who isn’t running from it so much as using it as a teaching tool both for others and, crucially, himself. Both subject and director take some time to warm to each other, to be sure, but once they do, the ease of their rapport makes for a frank and memorable look at addiction, recovery, sobriety, regret, and the long, hard road to finding something resembling inner peace with oneself.

paulwilliamsstillalive-2_custom-d7a2d2067a18fd4f109e375407ae497306432b5c-s900-c85

It’s also more than just a little annoying. Not because of anything Williams does or doesn’t do or say, but because Kessler often doesn’t know when to shut the fuck up and let himself fade into the background. This reaches its apex when Williams invites him along on a tour of the Philippines with him and the director can’t seem to tone down his own xenophobic impulses and paranoia, but even at its most self-(rather than subject-) indulgent, Paul Williams : Still Alive makes for pretty darn engaging, and at times even enlightening, viewing. And it’s heartening to see that Williams himself is doing well and counseling others while still maintaining a reasonably successful songwriting and voice-over career and achieving some approximation of work-life balance for both himself and his wife/manager. Simply put, he seems to finally have his shit together.

Paul Williams Still Alive

Not that getting to this point was in any way easy for the guy, of course, and his frankness and honesty in that regard is remarkable. Williams is straight-up about the fact that was an absolute asshole to his first two wives and a rotten father to his kids, and while he’s equally honest about his troubled childhood and family history with chemical dependency, he never puts the blame for his “wasted years” on anyone other than himself. There’s no doubt about it — Paul Williams is an absolutely fascinating  subject to base a film around.

Stepehn Kessler, though — not so much. And his insistence on inserting himself into the proceedings as much as possible is the one thing preventing Paul Williams : Still Alive from achieving the status of “absolutely essential showbiz documentary.” It’s good, don’t get me wrong — but it could, and probably should, have been great. There’s a semi-wistful song hanging somewhere in the gap between the two, I think — and I know just the guy to write it.

 

 

Comments
  1. Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

    Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s