Particularly if you are a young spratling, you may not immediately be aware of the awesomeness of iconic pop songwriter Paul Williams, a man responsible for countless epically quirky film scores, as well as approximately 85% of all drunken karaoke love ballads poignantly belted out at 3:00 in the morning since 1974. Fortunately for you, documentarian Stephen Kessler has arrived on the scene to remedy your ignorance, with Paul Williams Still Alive, opening theatrically this weekend in New York and Los Angeles. Still Alive drolly recounts Williams’ many creative accomplishments and cartoonishly singular public career, which imploded in the 1980s as a casualty of rampant drug addiction.
Williams was notorious in the 1970s for his endless parade of quirky TV appearances, as well as for his contributions to the landscape of popular music, and popular culture. He wrote the lyrics for “We’ve Only Just Begun,” the Carpenters’ first ever #1 Billboard hit, as well as “Rainy Days and Mondays,” one of their most recognizable. He wrote hit songs for Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, and Helen Reddy, and he composed soundtracks for a host of offbeat classics and under-the-radar cult epics of the period – from Bugsy Malone, to Phantom of the Paradise (in which he also starred),to The Muppet Movie. Standing 5’2” with a mane of platinum blonde hair and perpetual giant sunglasses, Williams cut a distinctive figure, and was always game for public appearances, making him one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable figures of the decade.
Kessler’s film filters the director’s admiration of Williams through the lens of Williams’ own considerably jaundiced hindsight perspective, contrasting the fawning fanboy glee of an outside observer with the wizened regret of a veteran former pop celebrity. Interspersing illustrative video clips and home movies with contemporary footage, Still Alive documents’ Kessler’s quest to locate and befriend Paul, and his awkward attempts to craft a film around him, which Kessler envisions as a chivalrous and redemptive tribute to a tragically fallen icon.
Kessler interjectively narrates the documentary himself, Michael Moore style, and incorporates himself as a character. The device is occasionally tedious, but it does effectively illustrate the dearth between Kessler’s initial perception of the situation and Paul’s. It becomes apparent that, to Paul, his time in the spotlight is a blur of private anxiety and shameful memories characterized by escalating drug addiction and increasing hostility and distance from his family, and Kessler’s movie becomes an attempt to reconcile that reality with Williams’ glitzy and irreverent public one. The approach might have been more effective if Kessler had pushed the narrative weight of these disparities a little further and in a more concise way, but the finished documentary is nonetheless funny and sincere, and oddly successful at aggrandizing its subject, perhaps for more meaningful reasons than Kessler had originally planned.