Paul Williams was at his most famous when I was still a little kid. I remember seeing him on variety shows, in “Smokey & The Bandit,” as an orangutan in one of the “Planet Of The Apes” sequels, and above all, I remember his omnipresence as a singer/songwriter. Even if I didn’t know those were his songs at the time, my childhood was largely underscored by the work of Paul Williams.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned a great appreciation for his body of work, and there are some high points that mean quite a bit to me. I think “Phantom Of The Paradise” is fantastic, and the songs in that film are almost always on my iPod when I travel. His song for the original “Muppet Movie,” the heartbreaking “The Rainbow Connection,” is one of the first songs I learned to play on the piano as a kid. And well before its critical rehabilitation began, I was a huge fan of the work he did for “Ishtar,” a hilarious goof on the very art of songwriting.
Beyond that, though, I find that a love of his work has been a common thread that has been part of many of my friendships. The first time I met Guillermo Del Toro was at the very first Butt-Numb-A-Thon, when he brought his personal 35mm print of “Phantom” and informed me as he sat down next to me that I was expected to sing along to all the songs with him. How could I not end up loving this guy? Edgar Wright was the first person to tell me how much of a tradition “Bugsy Malone” was for kids growing up in the UK, and his love of Williams and his work couldn’t be more palpable in conversation. When I met Nic Cage the first time on the set of “Kick-Ass,” I had been warned that he probably wouldn’t talk to me since I was press, but as soon as I mentioned how much his Big Daddy mask looked like the one from “Phantom Of The Paradise,” he lit up and told me it’s his favorite film, the movie that made him want to make movies, and right away, there was an easy line of communication opened.
So when I was going through all of my pre-Toronto e-mails and I noticed one that was offering up an interview with Williams, I wrote back immediately to say yes. I didn’t even care what film the interview was for. I was willing to talk to him on general principle. It is with enormous relief that I can now say that the movie, a documentary by director Steven Kessler, is great fun and a sometimes deeply touching portrait of a man who has survived his own worst instincts to find a kind of post-fame peace. What I’m curious about is how many younger people even know who Williams is, and a film like this could serve just as a strong primer on his work and his impact on pop culture, but Kessler seems to have something else in mind, and the result is both more personal and more effective at making a case for the greatness of Williams and his work.
Kessler has made a few features in the past, including “The Independent” and “National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation,” but in this film, he’s actually part of the story. I think it’s dangerous to make a documentary where you are as much as part of the film as whatever your subject is, and there are many cases where I think that can be insufferable. Here, though, the film actually arose from Kessler’s mistaken assumption that Williams had died after or during his well-publicized battle with drugs and alcohol. Considering the low profile Williams has had for many years, that’s not a bad assumption, but when Kessler learned that Williams was not only alive but planning to perform at a Winnipeg event called “Phantompalooza,” he grabbed a camera and headed out to record some footage of the man he once idolized. That sparks a conversation with Williams, and that sparks the idea of following him around to see what his life is like today. That’s pretty much all the explanation you need of the film, but of course, what makes it work is the wealth of details, and Kessler’s two-year shoot netted him some remarkable material. He’s shaped it into a film that is both very funny and occasionally very moving. That’s fitting, since the public persona Williams was known for on his 50 appearances on “The Tonight Show” and all of his game show and talk show appearances over the years. He could crack a joke with the best of them, but his music was all shot through with melancholy and sorrow.
Kessler’s film traces Williams and his career for a while, intercutting that with Kessler’s attempts to win Williams over to the idea of a documentary about himself. It’s Williams who seems uncomfortable being the only one onscreen, and he basically order Kessler to step in front of the camera with him so that it feels more like a conversation. Once that happens, the natural defenses that Williams has developed over his 40 or so years in show business start to crumble, and the real person underneath the image begins to emerge. While the Williams I remember from ’70s pop culture was bold, brash, given to a sort of non-stop celebration of his own awesomeness, there is a humble, centered quality to who he is now that seems far more self-aware. When he speaks about his early failed marriages, or when he looks back at his own behavior, it’s obvious that he’s not thinking of the professional landmarks he accomplished, but rather the personal landmarks where he stumbled.
Because Kessler comes to Williams as a fan first and a filmmaker second, there is a reverence that keeps him at arm’s length from his subject for a while, but the more time they spend together, the more they loosen up. You can also see how protective Williams’s wife is and how she wants to be sure that Williams isn’t exploited. One of the things I found most moving about the film is how blunt Williams is about his own recovery, and how much it means to him to help others find their way to sobriety. There’s a song he wrote and recorded for the end of the film called “Still Alive,” and while the years have taken a toll on his singing voice, there’s something appropriate about the somewhat ragged, raw delivery of the tune. And like his best work, it combines a wry sense of lyrical play with a direct emotional honesty that cuts through presentation and style completely.
The film is very funny, but never at the expense of its subject, and never at the expense of the moment. It’s just that Williams still has a lovely, sharp sense of humor, and Kessler is able to acknowledge the absurdity of his own discovery process on the film. What could have easily been a dry recitation of a public history or a fawning love letter to an idol avoids all of the easy pitfalls to discover a stirring and sweet story of survival and the way art can connect and affect us even decades after its creation.
“Paul Williams Still Alive” is currently seeking US distribution.