SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | March 19, 2012
Director: Stephen Kessler
Writer: Stephen Kessler
Paul Williams Still Alive is a delightfully quirky and inspirational documentary, able to elicit both laughter and tears, and for viewers of a certain age it’s also sure to inspire a warm sense of nostalgia. Probably most respected as a songwriter, Williams’ songs were huge 70’s hits for acts such as Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy and the Carpenters. He also made vital contributions to movies such as A Star Is Born (“Evergreen”) and my personal favorite, The Muppet Movie (“Rainbow Connection”). It wasn’t long before Williams became omnipresent with a number of film appearances in movies, playing “Little Enos Burdette” in Smokey and the Bandit and Virgil, the genius orangutan, in Battle for the Planet of the Apes along with a multitude of appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as well as being a regular on The Gong Show and Hollywood Squares. But Williams’ personal life was unraveling due to the burdens and excesses of fame and it wasn’t long before his appearances became less regular and then stopped altogether. As time progressed, it seems Williams was a largely forgotten figure that many people assumed had died.
After venturing online a few years back to buy a Paul Williams CD, director Stephen Kessler ended up doing a little web browsing and was surprised to find out that Williams was not only still alive but fifteen years sober and currently performing. So he decided to venture to a show in Winnipeg, Canada, with his camera in tow to capture some live footage of Williams and his fans. Not sure of what direction things might take, Kessler approaches Williams about shooting footage for a potential documentary of some kind. Williams is at first skeptical and a bit cold but as Kessler’s stalking continues Williams slowly begins to warm to the idea, with the two bonding for the first time over a shared love of squid.
The filming of the documentary lasted for a couple of years with Kessler often attached at the hip to Williams, much to the dismay at times of Williams’ wife and his business manager, and as often as not to Williams himself. Kessler even accompanies Williams on a tour of the Philippines, where Williams is still a huge star, allowing the documentary’s focus to be just as much on Kessler’s fears of terrorism and the local cuisine as on Williams’ reception and performances.
As much the story of Kessler and the making of his documentary as it is the story of Paul Williams, the film captures the process of the two men getting to know each other and eventually developing a sincere friendship. Along the way, we learn a lot about Williams, his past successes and failures and his current lease on life. You learn about his childhood injections with growth hormones which contributed to his unusually small physique, about his alcoholic father who died in an alcohol related car crash when Williams was only thirteen, and about his struggles to make it as an actor after high school. When success finally came, it served as a way to make him feel less different, something he’d longed for his whole life.
The interactions between the two men, with Kessler often prompting Williams to open up about what it was like to be so famous and then have his star fade, are fascinating to watch. Probably the most moving scene for me is when Kessler is finally able to convince Williams to sit down with him and watch talk-show footage of a coked out Williams smugly bragging about his infidelities and sordid behavior. Williams doesn’t want to see it, is clearly embarrassed and finally says he just can’t watch it anymore. Williams, for his part, is not one to look back, instead opting to keep his focus on the future.
And judging from the warm reception of the documentary at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival as well as Williams’ announcement that he is working on a new album with Daft Punk, hopefully a late career rebirth is just around the corner for this talented man.