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Catching Up on 2012: Paul Williams Still Alive

January 14th, 2013

As has become my yearly tradition, the past few weeks have seen a mad rush of movie-watching as I have attempted to catch up on many of the previous year’s films that I had missed, as I work to prepare all of my Year-End Best-Of lists.  My Best of 2012 lists will be going live starting a week from today, so let the anticipation begin now!  In the next few weeks I will be writing reviews of many of the films I have seen in my recent movie-watching binge.  Today, I wanted to begin by writing about a wonderful documentary that I saw a few weeks ago: Paul Williams Still Alive.

You might not recognize Paul Williams’ name, but I’d wager you certainly know his music.  Mr. Williams wrote “The Rainbow Connection,” as well as numerous popular hits for The Carpenters, David Bowie, Three Dog Night, and many other familiar names.  He wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun,” he wrote “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” he wrote the music for Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, I could go on and on.  I knew a little bit about Mr. William’s work, and I recognized his cherubic face from various TV and film appearances in the seventies and eighties, but I confess to not knowing much more than Mr. Williams than that before seeing this film.

Unlike me, filmmaker Stephen Kessler knew exactly who Paul Williams was, and he was a huge fan.  Growing up, Mr. Kessler adored Paul Williams’ music, and he was saddened that the pop star had passed away in the eighties.  Except, one day Mr. Kessler was searching on-line and realized that Paul William’s hadn’t died.  He was still alive.  So what the heck ever happened to him?

Paul Williams Still Alive is a sweet look back at the work of Mr. Williams, his songwriting success, his growing fame that led to a plethora of TV and film appearances, and eventually to alcoholism and drug abuse that nearly cost him everything.  But Paul Williams is still alive, still working and still touring.  Over the course of the film we get a fascinating insight into Mr. William’s apparently quite content and happy life today.  There’s an interesting moment in the film in which, while being interviewed by Mr. Kessler on-camera, Mr. Williams points out that his life doesn’t have the sad, tragic ending that might have made for a classic documentary ending.  And yet, the film is also an interesting window into a man whose work is still so beloved by so many, while he himself is nearly forgotten.  It’s a fascinating contradiction, and I was quite captivated by Mr. Kessler’s explorations into how deeply this did or did not bother Mr. Williams.

Right from the opening narration (which I gradually realized was by Mr. Kessler himself, rather than some famous musician or actor or voice-over specialist), Mr. Kessler is just as much in the spotlight of the film as is Mr. Williams.  The film is mostly told from Mr. Kessler’s point of view, starting with his discovery that Paul Williams is indeed still alive, through his first attempts to reach out to Mr. Williams, to his initial uncertainty and awkwardness around the man he idolized, and eventually to their growing friendship.  This didn’t bother me, but I was definitely curious, at first, as to why Mr. Kessler had chosen to make himself so much a part of the story.  This is clarified about thirty minutes in, when Mr. Williams pulls Mr. Kessler out in front of the camera, declaring that it would be much more natural if they were both on camera together, rather than his always having to pretend the camera wasn’t there.  It should be “the Stephen and Pauly show,” Mr. Williams declares, to Mr. Kessler’s pleasure and also to his dismay.

And so, for the rest of the film, it is the Stephen and Pauly show.  We get to know Stephen Kessler as much as we get to know Paul Williams.  A trip to the Philippines is a much about what this says about the state of Paul Williams’ career as it is Mr. Kessler’s nervousness about the food and the security in this country listed on the US government’s no-travel list.  There were a few moments when I found Mr. Kessler’s presence to be distracting, but for the most part I was endeared by the narrative of his burgeoning relationship with this former pop star he had loved in his youth.

Mr. Williams proves himself to be a fascinating figure, at once complex and also very simple.  He has lived an amazing life, and while he has made some terrible mistakes he has found an equilibrium, and a peace, that is impressive.  There are some big movie moments in the film, such as the scene at the end in which Mr. Kessler finally convinces Mr. Williams to watch some of his old TV appearances, so he could film his reaction.  But in my mind the greater pleasures of the film are the smaller moments, learning of Mr. Williams’ near-fanatical love of squid or seeing him in the moment before he goes on-stage to perform.

Had he done nothing else in his life but write “The Rainbow Connection,” I would find Paul Williams to be deserving of a film.  But of course there is far more to the man than that.  I delighted in getting to know Paul Williams, and like Mr. Kessler I was pleased to discover that Paul Williams is Still Alive.

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