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Friday, July 20, 2012

Review: Paul Williams Still Alive

Written by Kirk Baird

Paul Williams Still Alive is a nontraditional documentary that generated deserving buzz when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year. (Paul Williams Still Alive is not out on DVD/Blu-ray yet, but it’s worth watching for in the future.)

The documentary plays with the conventions of the genre in that writer-director and self-proclaimed Paul Williams fan Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation) inserts himself into the movie and becomes as much a focal point of the film as its singer-songwriter-actor subject; consider him a non-political Michael Moore.

As a refresher for some and introduction for others, the 5-foot-2-inch Paul Williams dominated popular music in the 1970s. It’s Williams who wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun” as the theme to a bank commercial and it was the Carpenters who turned it into a No. 2 hit. He also wrote “An Old-Fashioned Love Song” (Three Dog Night), “You and Me Against the World” (Helen Reddy), the Oscar-winning “Evergreen,” which he co-wrote with Barbra Streisand for her 1976 remake of A Star Is Born, and “The Rainbow Connection” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie.

He made appearances in numerous 1970s TV shows and a few films, was a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and was a frequent fill-in host for Merv Griffin. Through that decade Williams’s career couldn’t have been much hotter. But as the cliché goes, drugs and alcohol nearly killed him in the 1980s, put a freeze on his career, and wrecked several marriages. Williams got sober—25 years and counting—got his life and career on track, and continues to perform to sold-out audiences in small clubs and theatres worldwide.

But how many of us knew that?

And that’s the premise of Still Alive: to inform us that, yes, Williams is still around and quite active. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that; Kessler didn’t either, which is how he came to make a movie about Williams.

Williams and Kessler make for an awkward pair at first, with the documentary’s subject unsure of what to make of the filmmaker and his omnipresent camera. But their friendship grows throughout the 90-minute film. Williams opens up about his past troubles and learns to trust that Kessler isn’t out to get him with an unflattering film; Kessler, meanwhile, has the wish fulfillment of a chance to bond with an idol of his growing up.

Still Alive is not revelatory, rather warm and clever. Kessler’s ongoing narration is rife with witty observations and the film’s pacing is like a veteran stand-up comic working a room through the ebbs and flows of a routine: it’s funny, dramatic, illuminating, and even touching. It’s also a genuinely heartfelt tribute to a talent many of us have forgotten about and, sadly, assumed everyone else had as well.

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