Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 12, 2013)
Those of us who grew up in the 1970s will remember Paul Williams, as the singer/songwriter was nearly omnipresent during much of that decade. He wrote or co-composed hits for Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy, and the Carpenters – among others – and became a sought-after concert performer, actor and talk show guest in his own right.
Then when the calendar flipped to 1980 – poof! Or at least that’s how it seemed. In truth, Williams continued to work pretty steadily over the decades, but his public profile slipped so far that one can be forgiven for the assumption that he’d gone into hiding or even died.
Which is where the 2011 documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive comes into the picture. The title reflects the notion that Williams firmly entered the “where are they now?” category years ago and seeks to remind us that he indeed remains “still alive”.
Narrated by director Stephen Kessler, the documentary tells us a little about Williams’ career and his “wilderness years” as well as what led Kessler to pursue Williams as a documentary subject. We get interview sessions with Williams as well as York Hotel assistant manager Gregory Bland and bandleader Chris Caswell. Kessler follows Williams over a span of years as the film tells us about his life and career.
Or more accurately, Still Alive tells us about the life and career of one Stephen Kessler. A weird form of meta-documentary, this one often devotes more time to Kessler’s musings about his own life and failing career than with Williams, and it shows us more of Williams “behind the scenes” than in front of the camera proper.
While this allows Still Alive to avoid documentary clichés, it doesn’t make the end result satisfying. Clearly Kessler wants to use the movie as his own journey, as he hopes the faded star will tell him how to deal with his own career failings. Because of this, we get a lot about Kessler’s inner thoughts, and we often branch from info about Williams’ life to go to less logical subjects such as Kessler’s fear of terrorism in the Philippines.
I get where Kessler eventually goes with this: Williams is more content as a “has-been” than he ever was as a major star. Great message, but couldn’t Kessler get to it in a less self-indulgent manner? While his willingness to look behind the curtain can occasionally feel refreshing, usually it comes across as Kessler’s attempts to make the movie about himself and not its title subject.
Which is fine, I guess, but remains frustrating to me. For one, it makes Williams look like little more than a pawn in Kessler’s combination of half-assed self-therapy and career revival plan, and for another, it takes away from tales of a fascinating life.
Kessler rarely knows how to leave well enough alone. Early in the film, Williams starts to tell a revealing story about his childhood when Kessler interrupts to push toward some unconnected – and not very interesting – alternate subject. Williams looks frustrated and the viewer will probably feel the same way. Kessler’s agenda seems clear only to the filmmaker himself, so the viewer is left to tag along with his quixotic journey and hope for some nuggets of quality material.
These do appear on occasion. For one, Still Alive features a virtual treasure trove of archival footage that Kessler obtained from Williams himself. I suspect the rights issues on this film were massive, but the clips are worth the effort, as we see a shockingly broad array of video from Williams’ career.
Unfortunately, we see so much more of Kessler than anything else that we get few insights into Williams. The nominal subject often comes across as an afterthought here, and that keeps Still Alive from becoming satisfying. Perhaps the film should’ve been called Stephen Kessler Uses His Idol to Come to Terms With His Own Issues, as that’d give us a much more accurate idea what to expect.