Paul Williams Still Alive
Directed by Stephen Kessler
(USA, 2011, 84 minutes)
Friday, May 25, 6:30 p.m. at the Egyptian
Saturday, May 26, 1:00 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown
“Evergreen” was his biggest selling single ever. He wrote the lyrics for the subversively brilliant super-bomb Ishtar, which Quentin Tarantino loves (but will there be a remake? Probably not.). More than anything, most of my friends want to know about his work in notorious cult rock film Phantom of the Paradise. There’s not much about that last work here in Paul Williams Still Alive, but that’s the only real problem I have with it. Otherwise, it’s sweetly bent and self-deprecative and raises more questions than usual music documentaries while still showing love for the subject. (The subject’s feelings for the director may be different, however.)
New York filmmaker Stephen Kessler (The Independent, The Late Night Wars) makes commercials for a living, which makes sense as advertising is about inspiring emotion into conversion (i.e., sales). Thus it’s not much of a surprise to find out his primary pop culture passion as a child was the music and image of Paul Williams, the first celebrity that pops into mind at hearing the word “cherubic.” He had a face you could trust and he only seemed to want to sell you some happiness. And celebrity is always a word that tags along with any discussion of Williams — Kessler is in my generation, and in the post-counter culture narcissism of the 70s, celebrities became sparkling little gods everywhere (real “cherubim” in the Biblical sense!), singing tunes, appearing drunk on late night talk shows, wrangling with public demons in Wrangler denim leisure suits.
Paul Williams was a bit different though. Like similarly blonde-and-bespectacled John Denver, there’s a whole lot of sadness in many of his happy-sounding songs. And he wrote them for a lot of famous people — first and most famously, The Carpenters, a track I was thinking of earlier this week in Seattle because it was both a “Rainy Day(s) and Monday(s).” It’s that everyday universalism to loss but still hoping to make it that inspired Kessler, and drew him into Williams fandom, admiring his scrappy need to entertain and being himself no matter what. Sadly, Kessler never got over Williams passing away from all his self-abusive ways.
Wait a second. Of course, Williams didn’t die, he’s actually very much alive — though fighting those self-destructive compulsions (long-time sober, and very much a supporter of “The Rooms”), but also succeeding at it and leading a pleasurable life. And when Kessler figures this out, he tracks him down and makes this documentary about it. And things start to get weird very fast, due to Kessler’s own take on Williams’ personality and perseverance.
I don’t want to give away too much about the knock-about narrative, but many people might have a problem with the awkward moments where Williams does his best to freeze the director out of certain scenes, or manipulate him, or mock him due to Kessler’s fannish weirdness. I actually enjoyed all of this, and think it’s often very funny. I am on the fence about the one scene where Williams was going to open up to Kessler about something very important and devastating happening in his life, and then Kessler tries to toggle him back into still talking about his days as an entertainer. It’s in this film for a reason, and it makes Kessler look like a terrible interviewer, but such a faux pas is actually pretty common with celebrity interviews — there’s that word “celebrity” again: how much do we really want to know about them as actual people? — and it changes the entire tone of the film, maybe for the better.
Read more reviews and previews from the “Face the Music” series during the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival here.