Part of the magic of Paul Williams: Still Alive is that you don’t need to have ever heard of Paul Williams to enjoy the film. Director Stephen Kessler does an excellent job of sharing his adoration for Williams, and then keeping us hooked as we watch the complex relationship between a fan and his idol. Through humor, patience, and perhaps a tad too much self-absorption, Kessler shows us what happens when an idol becomes human in the eyes of his fan, and why that can turn adoration into admiration.
Kessler brings us into his fandom from the start by making sure that if you don’t know who Paul Williams is, you understand his popularity within the first five minutes of the documentary. Williams was the songwriter behind some of the all-time great pop hits like “Old Fashioned Love Song”, “We’ve Only Just Begun”, and “The Rainbow Connection”. Armed with a sharp wit and easy-going demeanor, Williams became an icon of the 1970s having made over fifty appearances on The Tonight Show, and co-starring in Planet of the Apes, Smokey and the Bandit, and the cult flick Phantom of the Paradise. But Williams’ drug addiction slowly whittled away his career to the point where he hadn’t just faded into obscurity; Kessler thought he was dead. A quick Google search revealed that Williams was very much alive, sober for 16 years, a motivational speaker, and touring musician. Kessler decides to make a documentary about his childhood idol even though his film doesn’t seem to have a point other than a providing a pretext for the director to hangout with Williams. Over the course of the movie, we see their friendship slowly develop, and the juxtaposition of Williams public persona of the 1970s against his private life of the present.
It would always be nice if people we admired were nice. Their attitude should be irrelevant to our enjoyment of their work, but if we’re going to like someone, we would prefer it if they weren’t a jerk. Additionally, we tend to form that opinion based on one meeting and disregard the fact that everyone, no matter how famous, has good days and bad days, and their attitude towards one fan on one occasion shouldn’t forever label them as “cool” or “ass-hole”. By spending months on end with Williams, Kessler is willing to show the actor/musician/songwriter warts-and-all.
Kessler heads into his documentary with the pretext of wanting to learn what happened to his idol, but it’s clear that he really wants to hang out with someone he admires. At one point, Williams even asks Kessler point blank, “What’s your documentary about?” It’s an obvious question and it’s charming to watch Kessler slowly realize that his idol is human and that there’s a complexity to Williams that prevents simple judgments.
Watching Williams interact with Kessler is a nice change of pace from normal documentaries where subjects are “ignoring” the camera crew. Williams repeatedly points out that he can’t ignore the camera completely since doing so would inauthentic, but if he acknowledges the camera then it’s not really capturing his day-to-day life. Eventually, Williams accepts Kessler and the camera rather than seeing the documentarian as an intruder and voyeur. Williams has more trouble accepting Kessler’s repeated requests to revisit the past in order to understand the musician’s feelings about fading to obscurity. Perhaps it’s his fall from popularity that makes Williams less image-conscious and willing to be curt on the topic with Kessler, but the director deserves credit for making sure we don’t see just one or two sides of his subject.
Kessler also tries to pull back on the intrusion by focusing on his own insecurities, motivations, and feelings about Williams. The documentarian-as-main-character structure is beginning to become seriously played out (I saw four documentaries at SXSW and three of them had the director putting in his personal story), but Kessler makes his personal relationship with Williams the driving force of the documentary. There are a few times when Kessler loses track of the relationship like when he’s freaking out about going to a reportedly dangerous part of the Philippines with Williams.
But mainly the story is about learning to admire someone not for a public persona, but going deeper to understand what makes that person tick, and finding something worth admiring beyond the ability to entertain. Williams is more-than-deserving of admiration, but he also represents the admiration we hold for other popular figures. The exploration of this relationship is the heart and soul of Paul Williams, and it’s what makes the documentary more than the story of just one man, albeit a charming, talented, and interesting man.
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