Note: A version of this review was written at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival for The Hollywood Reporter.
Other than its dorky title, “Paul Williams Still Alive” represents a remarkable achievement in a documentary. The case under scrutiny is something like a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the only difference being that the two didn’t simultaneously inhabit the same body nor did this Hyde do harm to anyone but himself — and loved ones.
The downward trajectory of pop-culture stars or athletes is all too familiar but in this instance the opposite occurs: Once the self-abusing star recovers his sanity and sobriety, he is clearly a much better, more intelligent and focused human being.
Filmmaker Stephen Kessler has made a thoroughly satisfying, always engaging and unusually perceptive doc almost in spite of himself — and in the face of no little resistance on the part of his subject, which would be the once very famous singer/songwriter/actor/entertainer Paul Williams.
The film has a winning combination for all sorts of platforms as the story is highly intriguing and the music speaks, or rather sings, for itself.
For a short person, Williams loomed tall in pop culture back in the day. Just a brief survey: He wrote the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” (famously the song was originally penned for a TV insurance commercial), Three Dog Night’s “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” Barbra Streisand’s “A Star is Born” album (including its hit theme song “Evergreen” and wrote for David Bowie, Anne Murray and even Kermit the Frog (“The Rainbow Connection”).
Williams put out albums, won Grammys, an Oscar (for “Evergreen”) and appeared on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” 50 times. He acted in films as far back as Arthur Penn’s “The Chase,” starred in “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” and guest starred in countless TV shows. He also wrote original songs for the movie “Ishtar.” Well, they can’t all be winners.
Most of them were, though. Then he disappeared. More to the point, alcohol, drugs and self-indulgent behavior took its toll. Kessler, a self-described chubby kid from Queens, was one of his many fans and years later he tracks down his idol playing a gig before enthusiastic fans at a Winnipeg nightclub. Thus begins an unusual odyssey for the two men as Williams permits Kessler, with no little trepidation on the performer’s part, to accompany him on the road to other concert dates to make this documentary.
Williams jokes that it’s “the Steve and Paulie Show,” but like many paired performers they mostly argue. The relationship is fraught with conflict. Williams isn’t at all sure he wants a camera in his face all the time, not to mention the faces of his wife Mariana, associates and band members.
Then there’s Kessler’s questions. At one point, Williams complains he is “so over talking about Paul Williams.” Kessler also has the courage to include some really poorly phrased if not downright crass questions from him to his former idol. Things like how did it feel going from superstardom to “The Gong Show?” (Even the question is all wrong since “The Gong Show” was a hit in its day.)
Williams wisely insists that Kessler step out from behind the camera and become part of the story. Kessler takes a kidding approach to much of this, as if trying to imitate Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore. But he hasn’t the on-camera flair of those two and awkward moments are many.
The very testiness of the Steve and Paulie relationship opens up avenues for the story. Out of his comfort zone, Williams reveals more of himself than he may want. The impatience of the older Williams is in direct contrast to the younger one on view often through a generous amount of old film and video clips. The younger Williams, often high by any number of means, went along with everything. And, clearly, he went along with his own self-destruction. The older Williams has no patience for this.
Coerced by Kessler into watching old clips in his home one day, you witness Williams become actually ill looking his old self. The arrogance and shallowness enrage him. He storms away.
His voice, never a strong suit, is pretty much gone and from the evidence here he plays mostly old songs, not new compositions. But he is still loved on the club circuit albeit in venues the young Paul Williams would never have entered. Kessler even nervously accompanies him on a six-hour bus ride in the Philippines through a jungle not recommended by the State Department for Americans due to terrorist activity.
Williams tells Kessler that after recovery from high living and the infection called celebrityhood, he is “trying to find normal.” From all signs in this bracing documentary, he found it long ago.
Opened: June 8 (Abramorama)
Production company: 3W Films
Director/screenwriter: Stephen Kessler
Producers: Jim Czarnecki, Stephen Kessler, Mike Wilkins, David Zieff
Executive producers: Rob Cohen, Lesa Lakin
Director of photography: Vern Nobles
Production designer: Perry Andelin Blake
Editor: David Zieff, Jonathan Del Gatto
No rating, 87 minutes.