This documentary almost looks like it’ll be one of those great comeback stories of a fallen celebrity who gets their dormant career resurrected through the help of one die-hard fan. But while writer/director Stephen Kessler seems intent on reminding the world of what this gifted songwriter has given us, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is not that kind of movie. Instead it’s a story of a man whose life was run into the ground by a strong addiction to fame and drugs, and of his journey to a place of happiness and fulfillment he is ever so thankful for today. This makes “Paul Williams Still Alive” one of the sweetest and most life affirming documentaries that I have seen in some time.
Kessler is best known as the director of many popular commercials and “Vegas Vacation,” a sequel which would have sucked no matter who made it. He starts off this documentary recounting how he grew up being such a big fan of Williams and of how the songwriter seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s. Williams appeared on “The Muppet Show,” made numerous appearances on TV shows like “Beretta,” and he became an incredibly popular guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. On top of that, Williams composed the music for “The Muppet Movie,” the cult classic “Phantom Of The Paradise,” and eventually won an Oscar along with Barbara Streisand for the song “Evergreen.”
Somewhere along the line, Kessler assumed that Williams had passed away at far too young an age. But while ordering one of his albums on the internet one night, he discovers to his surprise that Williams is still very much alive and still makes and performs music throughout the world. Kessler then makes it his mission to make a movie about Williams to let the world today know how much of an impact his music has had on us (and still does).
Kessler’s started filming Williams when the songwriter visited Winnipeg, Canada where a fan convention for “Phantom Of The Paradise” was taking place. This collaboration gets off to a rocky start as Williams shows a sharp reluctance to being filmed. There’s even a moment where Williams is singing in a San Francisco nightclub and gets the house manager to dim the lights so that Kessler can’t get a good view of him onstage. Kessler’s solution to this problem provides the documentary with one of its funniest moments.
In some ways William’s reluctance is refreshing because in a time where we are constantly flooded with reality shows with people becoming famous for the sake of being famous, Williams is not about to be a part of that phenomenon. It doesn’t take long to see that the songwriter is not the least bit interested in becoming famous like he once was (in interviews he has described this pursuit of fame as “pathetic”), and the movie becomes more about the kind of person he is today.
“Paul Williams Still Alive” does give us a brief biography of the songwriter who grew up with an alcoholic father who made him sing “Danny Boy,” and of how him being so short ostracized him from his classmates at school. Williams ends up blaming his lack of height on hormones being injected into him early in his life; this was done to make him taller, but it ended up having the exact opposite effect. After moving out to Los Angeles to become a film actor, he ended up finding success as a songwriter which soon elevated into a huge celebrity. The attention it gave him was something he soon lived for, and it would eventually become an even bigger addiction than drugs.
Eventually however, Williams warms up to Kessler during a trip to the Philippines, and it even gets to where Williams encourages the filmmaker to join in front of the camera instead of just staying behind it. Now this might have proven disastrous as “Paul Williams Still Alive” could have ended up becoming more about the filmmaker than his subject, but Kessler’s increased involvement proves to be a major plus. The relationship between these two men helps to define Williams as he is today; while Kessler constantly looks to the past, Williams only wants to look forward.
The one scene that helps define Williams reluctance to revisit his “glory days” is when he watches himself guest hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show. Clearly high on drugs and making an absolute fool of himself, the realization of what he was doing back then forces him to stop watching the rest of the footage. The person Williams was back then is so different from who he is today, and the pain that crosses the songwriter’s face over the embarrassing things he cannot change is impossible for him to hide. It’s no wonder that Williams wants to leave the past exactly where it is.
Near the end of the documentary, Williams even gives Kessler a whole bunch of videotapes he has in storage, having no idea of what’s on them. One particularly disturbing home video has Williams celebrating Christmas with his family, and then later going upstairs to film himself getting high. Watching this illustrates just how far down the songwriter’s drug addiction took him and, looking at him today, it’s almost like we’re looking at a completely different person.
Kessler however is not out to embarrass Williams at all, and his intention to bring the songwriter back to the world’s attention is a noble one. Williams is after all the man who wrote the song “Rainbow Connection” for Kermit the Frog, “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters, “An Old Fashioned Song,” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Heck, he even did the music for “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas!” His music has been burned so deeply into our collective consciousness that we have to recognize the importance it has had on our lives.
Williams continues to make beautiful music while dealing with themes like love, loneliness and alienation, and he definitely deserves to be recognized for the countless music contributions he has given us throughout the years. Maybe not everyone has forgotten who he is, but we do need to be reminded of the music he has created. Besides, he got upstaged by Kermit the Frog all those years ago!
Some have accused “Paul Williams Still Alive” of not including more of the songwriter’s work which he has produced between the 70s and now, but this documentary is not intended to be a career retrospective. As the film goes along, it becomes more about how Williams is a better (not to mention far more interesting) man today than when he was as an overindulgent celebrity. These days he is the President of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and he has been sober now for over 20 years. He’s even a certified drug and alcohol counselor and at times seems to live more for that than making music.
With “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Kessler has given us far more than the average showbiz documentary. He’s given us a look at a life worth appreciating regardless of the embarrassing missteps that upended it at various points, and this is all accomplished without him trying to be manipulative or playing at our heartstrings unnecessarily. This is a warts and all documentary that doesn’t hide anything, and you will come out of it with not just a deep respect for Williams’ music, but also for the healthy perspective he has developed on his life overall.
During a time which sees certain celebrities desperately grasping for whatever fame is left for them to have, here’s a person who has found the happiness we all mistakenly thought he had when he was super famous. In the end, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is more about what it means to be happy, and Williams has more than earned the happiness he has today.
* * * * out of * * * *