TIFF 2011: PAUL WILLIAMS: STILL ALIVE Review

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Paul Williams: Still Alive is certainly unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. The project started as director Stephen Kessler’s (Vegas Vacation, The Independent) attempt to make a fairly benign documentary profile about prolific songwriter and longtime television personality Paul Williams, but it mutated into something more. Williams clearly felt somewhat awkward about being a documentary subject and the movie transformed into being as much about the loving and uneasy relationship formed between the film’s director and subject as it is about Williams himself. The result is a very funny, sweet, and revealing movie far more interesting than a more straightforward profile ever could have been. Hit the jump for more.

Paul Williams Still Alive imageIf you’re unfamiliar with the name Paul Williams, that’s probably how he likes it at this point. There was a time when Williams was unavoidable. After a failed stab at acting Williams found a career as a songwriter responsible for hits like Three Dog Night’s “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” The Carpenter’s  “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and Kermit The Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.” He won Grammys, an Oscar, and after a successful appearance on The Tonight Show, became a fixture of variety shows in the 70s (he also wrote the soundtrack for The Phantom Of Paradise and played the psychotic record producer Swan). All that fame and adoration in the 70s could only lead to one place: a welcoming mountain of cocaine. Williams soon became an addict to fame and a variety of substances, burning himself out in the 80s before eventually pulling out of show business and embracing sobriety. He still tours, but likes to keep things fairly low key these days and that’s where Stephen Kessler enters the picture with his probing camera.

Kessler grew up watching Williams and opens the film by admitting he was shocked to learn that the songwriter is even alive, hence the title. He travels up to a Phantom Of Paradise reunion screening/concert in Winnipeg (oddly the only city in North America where the film was a hit in the 80s) and awkwardly asks Williams to be the subject of his film. He agrees and soon Kessler is following Williams around with a camera at any public appearance. At this point, things get interesting. It’s not so much that Williams is unwilling to participate in the documentary, it’s just that he clearly feels uncomfortable with a camera pointed in his face at all times and is unafraid to admit it. That sort of thing must happen all the time in documentaries, but rarely does it actually become part of the movie. In Paul Williams: Still Alive that practically becomes the main subject of the documentary and is a better film for it.

Paul Williams Still Alive imageThere is something odd about a filmmaker so enamored with a single person that they feel they need to follow them around with a camera and turn the subjects life into a film. Kessler seems aware of this and gives the film a tongue-in-cheek voiceover gently mocking his somewhat obsessive feelings towards Williams and often leaves the failed questions, gaffs, and uncomfortable moments from their interviews in the film. Fortunately, this can’t all be dismissed as mere navel-gazing. Quite apart from the comedy to be mined from the material, it says a great deal about Williams. How could a man who once agreed to skydive on an episode of Circus Of The Stars just to get on television (mere days after winning his Oscar no less) suddenly feel so uncomfortable about being on camera? It says a great deal about how he’s grown as a person since his days of 70s excess and slowly, but surely they get to everything Kessler hoped to uncover with his movie.

Paul Williams Still Alive imageAs the relationship between Kessler and Williams improves, they gradually find themselves becoming friends. Soon Williams is opening up about subjects that initially seemed impossible like his failed marriages, drug habits, and career in trash TV. When Kessler cuts too close or Williams feels that they are verging on uncomfortable territory, he’ll say it, but admirably never dodges a question. Though he goes down some uncomfortable paths to get there, Kessler’s film ends up being a far more revealing profile than ever could have possible in a conventional doc. The final product is a rambling, awkward, funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately a very genuine portrayal of a fascinating figure. Williams even composed and recorded an autobiographical song for the closing credits that sums up his current place in the world more succinctly and honestly than anything he says in the film. Given how obvious it is that Williams’ art is a means of expressing inner thoughts he can’t always say out loud, I suppose that appropriate and the fact that he was willing to create the song for the movie is the ultimate sign that Kessler’s unconventional approach to documentary filmmaking was the best possible choice for this particular project.

Grade: A-

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  • Daniel

    Viva Paul Williams. Looking forward to checking this out, thanks.

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