Paul Williams Still Alive (2011)
Starring: Paul Williams
Directed by: Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation)
Synopsis: Documentary about the rise and fall and modern mediocrity of legendary singer/songwriter Paul Williams.
- Paul Williams’ lackluster attitude and somewhat reluctance to actually want to be in this documentary. He knows he had the world by the brass balls back in the 70s and practically pissed his fame and fortune away on booze and drugs, yet he’s sober now and just wants to make an honest living performing for meager crowds of adoring fans around the world.
- The documentarian, Stephen Kessler is not a great filmmaker and he kinda knows it. The shooting from the hip tone of this documentary works well despite a subject not really being in the mood to be bothered to be a documentary subject and a filmmaker who knows he’s bugging the hell out of Paul Williams. It’s a very strange relationship between these two and part of the charm and fun of this film is watching this odd couple try to get along.
- The music. Even as a has been, Paul Williams’ songs are timeless and some of the sweetest songs ever written and its great that he is still alive to sing his ditties to his
legions throngscrowds of fans in rinky-dink auditoriums. Even if you’re not familiar with his work, this would be a great starting point to his genius.
- Paul Williams. It’s very hard to imagine such a short and odd-looking man to be one of the most successful and adorned icons in the late 60s and mid-70s but he was. And part of that success was his personality and very honest and brutal candid nature. He has a wit as sharp as his ear for melody and if it wasn’t for such a tragic downfall of substance abuse, he probably would be mentioned in the same breath as age-less entertainers and songwriters as McCartney, Jackson and Springsteen. But this documentary is no comeback for Williams and he knows it and being honest he never tries to apologize or even look back too much at his shortcomings. It’s very clear that Williams was approached to be the subject in someone’s documentary and not Williams using the film as a springboard to relaunch his stale career. And to me, that’s refreshing in an era of constant social media where anyone can use Facebook or YouTube to possibly be influential or famous.
What doesn’t work:
- Stephen Kessler. At times throughout the film he tries in vain to become buddies with Paul Williams. It seems like he thinks he’s going to “save him” from mediocrity with this film and even goes so far to say that he was his hero and that he feels connected to Paul Williams. If you take him with a huge grain of salt and maybe as someone who’s not so serious, then it works on a comedic level, especially since Williams seems to be annoyed by this goof and doesn’t always play nice with him. Kessler also hypes up the drama in unnecessary moments and it’s almost embarrassing as he tries to elicit emotional responses from Williams. In one scene he shows Paul an embarrassing talk show clip where Paul was clearly wasted and it seems useless and cruel to show someone scenes like that in person. I understand that this is a documentary about a famous person’s life but you don’t have to constantly remind the has been that he made such an ass of himself to try to get a response for your documentary. Leave the poor man alone douche-nozzle.
Overall: I admire Paul Williams greatly. Just as a songwriter he knocks it out of the park creatively. I always assumed he was a great person from his appearances on The Muppet Show and his self-deprecating roles in The Smokey and the Bandit. I fell in love with Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise the first time I saw it just over a decade ago and wish I saw it way sooner. Williams is fantastic in that flick. But after seeing Still Alive I wish his career stayed strong and steady and that he achieved even greater success later in life. He very well should have a Tony award by now. Seeing him humbly play in small arenas and clubs, kinda breaks your heart but it’s also uplifting because he just didn’t rest on his laurels collecting royalty checks, watching TV all day. He’s still busting his butt performing as best he can and it’s very heartwarming to see it. If anything, this film should re-introduce people to what great songwriting is and a reminder that bigger they are, the harder they can fall.
Score: 8 Rainy Days and Mondays (out of 10)