With a little help from filmmaker Stephen Kessler, Paul Williams makes it over that rainbow.
No two ways, Paul Williams is a tragic figure. The singer/songwriter/sometimes actor is responsible for some of the most memorable songs of the 1970s, all handed over to other talents (Barbra Streisand, The Carpenters, David Bowie, Kermit the Frog). Even the film that would mark his star turn, Brian DePalma’s 1974 horror-musical Phantom of the Paradise, flopped (except in Winnipeg, where it inexplicably enjoys a rabid cult following). A stocky five-foot-nothin’, Paul Williams just wasn’t meant to be a star, despite his knack for good old-fashioned love songs. But he’s always been a favourite for misfit lonely-hearts.
Chief amongst these is Stephen Kessler, whose own sort-of-rise-and-fall as a filmmaker (he directed Vegas Vacation and The Independent before getting bounced back down to commercials) makes him and Williams seem cosmically connected. And after finding out that Williams was, indeed, still alive, Kessler set about making a documentary about him. The first, and liveliest, act of Still Alive shows Williams resisting this. But, bonding over a plate of calamari, Williams lets Kessler in, resulting in a fine piece of fanboy worship–as-documentary filmmaking. Williams is so pleasantly down-to-earth and funny that watching him shuffle about for 90 minutes would be entertainment enough. Even if Kessler inserts himself a little too deliberately (a trip to the Philippines to follow Williams on tour turns into 20 minutes of Kessler’s slow-burn anxiety attack), it’s a fine thing seeing these two men connect. Functioning as both a “man-behind-the-music” crash course in Williams for the uninitiated, and a deeply felt character study for long-time fans, Still Alive is a hard-fought, if less-than-penetrating, look at one of America’s premiere unsung tunesmiths.