You may not know the name Paul Williams, but odds are you know one or more of the songs he’s written. How about “Rainbow Connection” from the first Muppets film? Barbara Streisand’s classic “Evergreen”? “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” from The Carpenters? And there were many, many more hits on his resume.
Even though he had an amazing track record as a songwriter, Williams was probably best known in his 1970s heyday as a TV personality. For a time, it was hard to turn on the TV and not see Williams. He was everywhere, from “The Love Boat” to “Circus of the Stars” to just about any talk show you could name (he appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson 50 times). He also branched into film, writing the score for and acting in the cult-classic rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, composing the songs for the bizarre 1976 gangster-musical-with-kids Bugsy Malone, and even playing an ape in a Planet of the Apes movie.
And then, he just disappeared. Or so it seems. Williams retreated so far out of the limelight that director Stephen Kessler thought he had died years ago from substance abuse—and Kessler probably wasn’t alone in that belief. The truth was that Williams was still kicking (hence the title), but substance abuse had taken him out of the game. Kessler, a lifelong fan of Williams’ melancholy songs, took it upon himself to meet up with the star, convince him to cooperate with his making a documentary about him, and here we have it.
Williams certainly is a potent subject for a film biography. Due to stunted growth suffered as a child, he was short, chubby, bespectacled—sort of like a grown-up version of Cousin Oliver from “The Brady Bunch.” The insecurities of this against-type pop star drove him to succeed in all areas of showbiz—and succeed he did, winning an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe. But the trappings of showbiz led him to abuse alcohol and drugs.
When Kessler first encounters Williams at a Phantom of the Paradise convention, he’s older, wiser and long clean and sober. The budding friendship between Kessler and Williams becomes a main focus of the film.
This is an interesting approach for a documentary. Instead of just documenting Williams’ rise and fall along the lines of a Vh1 “Behind the Music” special, Still Alive is as much about Kessler and his relationship with Williams as it is about the star himself.
They’re not fast friends. Williams is initially testy with the director—mistrustful and maybe a little afraid of getting back into the Hollywood whirlwind. Williams now leads a calmer life, playing small gigs all over the world to devoted fans. As the film progresses, he starts to trust Kessler and let him in, and it’s a moving transition.
Williams, now 72 and the president of composers performance rights organization ASCAP, is at peace—with himself, his past and his body of work. He’s a far cry from the cocky showman we see in old TV clips throughout the film. Still Alive movingly portrays his journey—and Kessler’s—playing like a more poignant version of the hard-rock comeback doc Anvil.
Along the way, we see clips of Williams in recent performances. His voice may not be what it once was, but his graciousness to the fans who’ve stuck with him, and his all-around joy for life is something to behold.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Still Alive is that it feels real—never staged or contrived, as so much “reality” TV and many documentaries are. This is no vanity show for Williams. He comes across alternatively cranky, sweet, moody, reflective, happy, sad—in other words, human. I walked away from this film feeling like I knew its subject better, and that’s the primary goal of any documentary.
I heartily recommend Paul Williams: Still Alive. It has plenty to say—about fame, about the redemption of maturity, about friendship—and damn, those songs were … still are … good.
Check out the trailer for Paul Williams: Still Alive here.Buy Paul Williams Still Alive DVD on Amazon