You may not recognize the name Paul Williams, but chances are good that, like filmmaker Stephen Kessler, you’ve been touched by the Oscar and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter’s music at some point in your life. As sung by a banjo-plucking frog on a lonely swamp log, Williams’ gentle ballad “The Rainbow Connection” offered hope to a generation of lovers and dreamers who have since passed the song along to the next generation; the late, great Karen Carpenter scored two of her biggest hits with his songs “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Close to You” (the latter of which became one of the most popular wedding tunes of the 1970s); and if you’re a film buff, you may recognize his work in movies like A Star Is Born, Bugsy Malone, and Phantom of the Paradise.
In Paul Williams Still Alive, Kessler sets out to profile the prolific singer/songwriter/actor who seemed ubiquitous in the 1970s and ’80s, only to disappear from the spotlight following a protracted battle with drugs and alcohol. Instead of a simple career retrospective, however, he ends up getting so much more.
Convinced that Williams has passed away as he scours the Internet to purchase one of his albums, Kessler discovers to his surprise that not only is Williams alive and well, but he’s also still performing regularly to adoring fans around the world. Like many teens of the 1970s and ’80s, Kessler connected with Williams’ pensive, poetic songs about love and loneliness, and upon learning that he would be performing at a Winnipeg screening of Phantom of the Paradise (panned by critics, the notorious Brian De Palma bomb was a massive hit in just two cities: Winnipeg and Paris), the filmmaker convinces Williams to be profiled in a documentary. At first Williams is somewhat aloof, yet Kessler persists and, in time, makes a breakthrough by bonding with the performer over his favorite seafood. Meanwhile, as Kessler begins exploring the highs and lows of Williams’ career, the subject pulls the storyteller into the film, and a close friendship begins to develop. Later, Kessler tags along with Williams for a concert in the Philippines, where their bond is cemented during a tense bus ride through the Mindanao jungle. As a result, the filmmaker gets the one thing he’s craved since one of his earliest meetings with Williams, though when it seems to go awry he fears that he may have betrayed his new friend’s trust.
As a documentary filmmaker, the temptation to inject oneself into the story is a natural instinct. Yet doing so can be a tricky endeavor: put yourself in front of the camera too much and the audience will accuse you of being an egomaniac -- not enough and you risk appearing indecisive. Fortunately for Kessler, it’s Williams who makes the decision to drag the director into the story early on, and it’s the right one. With all due respect to the singer/songwriter and his genuinely fascinating life story, the emerging friendship at the center of Paul Williams Still Alive is what gives the film a soul that most detached celebrity profiles are sorely lacking. In addition to allowing Williams to open up in a way that feels deeply personal and sincere, it also puts him in the position to call his biographer out on camera, leading to some of the film’s most honest and poignant moments -- ones that are made all the more effective by veteran editor David Zieff (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Crazy Love), whose remarkable sense of timing provides the film a delicately awkward humor that wouldn’t be out of place in The Office, yet allows Williams’ stories of his childhood and addictions to unfold like a conversation with a dear friend. All the while, clips from Williams’ countless television appearances and musical performances help to put his story in a context that we can connect with -- even if you’ve never heard of him before.
As sober as the documentary gets from time to time, however, there’s a warmhearted sense of levity that has a way of continually catching us off guard. Though a large part of that most certainly stems from the fact that Kessler has the good fortune of profiling such a candid, charismatic subject, the filmmaker’s creative choices play an equally important role in setting Paul Williams Still Alive apart from the pack. Kessler obviously enjoys his work, and by including Williams’ candid reactions as he “stalks” his subject from across a city street or scoffs at a question that gets under his skin, the self-depreciating director makes his subject more relatable. Likewise, by continually returning to covers of Williams’ most famous tunes, Kessler offers testament to the singer/songwriter’s lasting influence on generations of artists.
Everyone has their demons, and we all deal with them in different ways. Sometimes, as with Williams, they manage to get the best of us. But it’s the way we contend with those demons that ultimately reveals our true character, and after 30 years of sobriety Williams displays a towering sense of compassion and perseverance that betrays his small stature. Meanwhile, by connecting with the artist he looked up to as a small boy and forging an unexpected new path as a documentary filmmaker, Kessler finds his own Rainbow Connection, which helps to reinforce the universal truths that have given his subject’s art such lasting power. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan