Catherine Reviews Stephen Kessler’s Paul Williams Still Alive [IFFBoston 2012 Review]

The minute I saw that there was a documentary about Paul Williams playing at IFFBoston, I knew I had to go. My knowledge of Paul was admittedly limited. I first became formally aware of him much later than was retrospectively acceptable, considering how long his music had been unknowingly making such an impact on me from an early age.

It was about four years ago that I first watched Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma’s awesome and excessively glittery glam-rock musical take on Phantom of the Opera, starring and featuring music and lyrics by Paul Williams. Williams is just about the opposite of the heartthrob Hollywood star; tiny but always swaggering and smirking with a scrunchy round face and a mop of blond hair. That he and the lanky bug-eyed and recently deceased William Finley were the co-leads of this film is just about the perfect antithesis to the standard leading man. I looked up who Paul Williams was and lo and behold, the man was responsible for having written some of the most important songs in my life.

I speak less of songs like ‘Evergreen’ and ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and more of his work on The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol and “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas”. Laugh if you will, but it is impossible to quantify the place these songs hold in my heart. He has a penchant for consistently striking the perfect balance of expressing sentiment without being too saccharine whether it be a longing-filled ballad or a joyful jaunt. Songs like “The Rainbow Connection”, “Brothers”, “Movin’ Right Along”, “Thankful Heart” and “One More Sleep Til Christmas” are perfect creations that go right for my jugular, containing purified and encapsulating representations of joy, gratitude and acceptance.

All of this lengthy background sets up the fact that this was an individual that automatically had a personal connection with my interests, and at least on that level, the film would already be a success in my eyes. Director Stephen Kessler has this same connection which prompts him to make the film in the first place. Those looking to satisfy the seedy curiosity inherent in tell-all’s with Williams recounting firsthand experiences with drug and alcohol addiction, and his subsequent recovery, will be somewhat let down.

It turns out that Paul Williams has little interest in talking about the past. He is twenty years sober and living a more fulfilling life now than he was then, so what is the point of looking back? Paul Williams Still Alive is more about Kessler providing a narrative of the filming process as he slowly realizes this is not going to be quite the  exposé he imagined. More importantly, it is about the evolution of Kessler and Williams’ relationship, which starts with passive-aggressive hesitancy and ends with what seems like the making of a lifelong friendship.

It cannot be denied that disappointment sank in as it became clear the film would be just as much, if not more, Kessler’s story than Williams. The film’s subject, admittedly admirably, refuses to be pushed into the biographical mold of the ‘˜rise and fall’. Yet even basic reflection on what led him to finally start taking steps towards recovery is not divulged. Nor is there any discussion of his music outside of a statement about his songs falling into themes of loneliness and isolation which, let’s face it, is pretty obvious. During the director Q&A, Kessler mentioned that Williams clearly loved music (he is the current president of ASCAP for goodness sake) but had little interest in talking about his work. So what is this documentary about?

There is certainly some biographical information, and Williams does touch on topics, even if it is sometimes vague. He interprets his own actions, equating his appearance in seemingly everything at the time to being addicted to attention, to feeling like part of the club. He talks a lot about the difference between being special and being different; how he always felt different and his fame was a constant strive towards being special. There is also a ton of archival footage that is effectively used to give that sense of being in that part of the 70’s where he really did seem to be everywhere.

Kessler captures the often unspoken awkwardness that organically comes about when a documentarian is incessantly following his subject around. Kessler gives the film a narrative streak littered with humor throughout as he continues to be unaware that he is the elephant in the room. Williams is at first quite passive-aggressive, and the director lingers on depicting the uncomfortable silences and the push-and-pull between filmmaker and subject. At one point Kessler uses a blatantly manipulative method to get a planned response out of Williams. It works, and he narrates that he felt bad and that he had gone too far. Throughout, Kessler bravely showcases just how unnatural making a documentary can be.

The director’s constant narration provides an in-the-moment interpretation of what the experience of filming was like from his point of view. There are times when Kessler allows Williams to get too far away from the film. In select portions it feels less like Kessler telling both his and Williams’ parallel stories and more like Kessler telling his own story that Williams happens to be present for.

Stephen Kessler is clearly devoted to his subject whom he can now proudly call a true friend. Paul Williams would not conform to a comfortable rise-and-fall arc. He is too happy and satisfied with his current life to immortalize himself in a documentary as just another musician who ‘˜lost it all’. He rightfully does not see it that way. Sadly, this leads to limited (but not absent) reflection on the ups and downs of fame, drug addiction and the road to recovery. Though unable to dig deep into its subject, Paul Williams Still Alive continuously entertains and amuses. Without being revelatory in any sense, it manages to examine the relationship between documentarian and subject. If the past of Paul Williams does not matter to Paul Williams, then maybe, just maybe, it should not matter to us. Now excuse me while I go listen to ‘The Hell of It’ for the twentieth time today.