With Paul Williams Still Alive, filmmaker Stephen Kessler — a lifelong fan of the titular singer-songwriter and actor — set out to make a documentary about his idol. Confronted with a subject whose response to this unsolicited attention vacillates between annoyance and appreciation, Kessler instead chronicles the uneasy friendship that develops as he insinuates himself into Williams’s life. The result is awkward both cinematically and emotionally, and provides a deeply unsatisfying look at a fascinating, unlikely celebrity.
Frustrated by an acting career that had been stalled in part by his diminutive stature, Williams discovered a flair for songwriting that led to hit versions of his songs by everyone from the Carpenters to Helen Reddy to Three Dog Night in the early 1970s. He parlayed this success into a recording career of his own, as well as frequent film and TV work as both a composer and an actor. Perhaps more significantly, he became a fixture of late-night talk shows for the remainder of the decade. (One of the film’s few virtues is the abundance of archival footage, much of it from Williams’s personal collection.) But as a montage of YouTube videos demonstrates, most people today associate songs like “Rainy Days and Mondays” with the artists who covered them, and the once ubiquitous Williams has become a strangely contradictory pop culture presence, both pervasive and invisible. Kessler admits, in the opening narration that explains the film’s title, that he’d assumed Williams was dead.
In interviews, Williams offers fascinating details about his upbringing: he was given hormones to make him grow, which had the converse effect of halting his development; his alcoholic father died in a drunk-driving crash when Williams was thirteen; he went to live with his aunt because his single mother couldn’t afford to raise three children. But Kessler continually redirects him to dwell on his fall from grace, which, predictably, was brought on by drug and alcohol abuse. (Williams has not only recovered but has become a certified counselor.) Kessler does nudge Williams and his associates into some revealing moments, but he can’t tell the difference between probing and prying, nor between off-the-cuff and boring.
Kessler shifts the film’s focus away from Williams to the process of making a documentary, and while this unusual (but not unprecedented) hyper-reflexivity sheds some light on the challenges, deceptions, and shortcomings of the form, the approach feels more desperate than inspired — a last-ditch effort to salvage the footage or, even worse, a filmmaker’s narcissistic insertion of himself into a narrative in which he doesn’t fit. Kessler briefly mocks the staid PBS-style method of laying out the facts of a subject’s life in chronological order. Tellingly, this parody is more appealing that what he has actually done in the rest of the film, which is to embed snippets of Williams’s life and career within the less compelling story of his own bungling efforts to gain a public figure’s approval to make a film about him. Kessler implies that Williams’s prickly semi-cooperation made a straightforward documentary impossible, but it’s his own pushy, socially illiterate manner that sets the tone. Either way, a career that encompasses everything from “Rainbow Connection” to Brian De Palma’s cult classic The Phantom of the Paradise to 50 appearances on The Tonight Show deserves a treatment that more thoroughly explores its wonderful oddness.