Sometimes Uncomfortable Doc Resurrects '70s Superstar Paul Williams
Paul Williams: Still Alive A Film by Stephen Kessler Virgil Films, 84 mins, $19.99.
In the 1970s the diminutive Paul Williams was everywhere. And I mean, everywhere.
The singer-songwriter was best known for penning hits for others like the Carpenters ("Rainy Days and Mondays," "We've Only Just Begun"), Three Dog Night ("Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song," "Out in the Country"), Helen Reddy ("You and Me Against the World"), and Kermit the Frog ("The Rainbow Connection").
But he was also a performer himself and very frequent guest and co-host on talk shows (appearing on "The Tonight Show" some 50 times), had acting spots on many shows like "The Love Boat" and "The Odd Couple," scored films and made a few big screen appearances.
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Oh, and he won an Oscar for Best Original Song (with Barbara Streisand) for "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)". You know, "love...soft as an easy chair..."
And then in the '80s, Williams just... disappeared, as in a haze of drug and alcohol hell as he saw his career fizzle into nothing. At 5' 2", Paul Williams had gotten even smaller.
This documentary, directed by admitted superfan (and frequent on-camera presence) Kessler, of course, proves the title accurate. But more than that is a raw - and frequently uncomfortable to watch - tale of a man who at one time was a huge superstar, but decades later was thankful to have a gig at a local hotel bar.
That many of Williams' lyrics are about loneliness, isolation, separation, and anxiety only adds to the story's weight, as his seemingly reluctance with the project and Kessler's approach. The viewer wonders throughout when Williams, perhaps tired of being filmed eating squid (a favorite food), in his hotel rooms, or answering questions might pull the plug on the whole project at any point.
The scene where Kessler forces Williams to watch old television clips (and the film has an incredible bounty of them) of him clearly drunk or stoned on talk shows is a bit harrowing. But Williams, sad-eyed behind his round glasses, makes no excuses.
Ditto when, in Spinal-Tap fashion, Williams is left to wander in the kitchen of one casino concert venue, trying to find his way to the stage with nary a handler or PR person in sight.
But of course, there is an uplifting ending. Now sober for many years, Williams finds that he has small but highly-dedicated fan bases in pockets around the U.S. Canada, and.... The Philippines. Kessler is occasionally an annoying presence, but at least admits his evolution during the ensuing filming. And indeed, recent years (and this film) have/are giving Williams a late-career boost.
Houston -- and, specifically, the Hilton Americas hotel downtown -- makes an appearance as Williams is the featured speaker at a 2006 Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston benefit. "What does a Maid or a Minute have to do with orange juice?" a member of his group oddly asks while pondering our sports stadium. "Shouldn't it be spelled 'Made' instead?"
In the end, the title is a bit misleading. The now 72-year-old Williams has been "alive" for a lot of years after crawling out of his personal hellhole, but Still Alive is nonetheless one of the most brutally honest and squirm-worthy -- but creative and unique -- rock docs of recent years.
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