June 7, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Paul Williams: Still Alive

by Vadim Rizov

Paul Williams: Still Alive

Paul Williams' best-known song is probably The Muppet Movie's "The Rainbow Connection," which kicks off the film with a camera plunge from the skies into Kermit's swamp. Stephen Kessler opens Paul Williams: Still Alive with an allusive riff on that shot, a clip of the singer-songwriter skydiving on a 1977 installment of CBS' long-discontinued annual special "Circus of the Stars." Williams' tunes remain pop standards: Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen," The Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays." The music enabled Williams to become a ubiquitous guest-star of the '70s; a friend who grew up at the time described him as "television wallpaper."

Growing up, Kessler was mesmerized by Williams. Transparently Napoleonic at 5'2", shaggy and dwarfed by his own outrageous glasses, he was, Kessler notes, "no one's idea of a leading man." Quick-witted quips and good timing gave him a decade of TV fame, a legacy Williams is semi-eager to disown. As his television time went up, he says, his songcraft declined. Watching himself on Merv Griffin, Williams can't stand revisiting his egotistical '70s self in action and worries about his daughter seeing the clip.

Paul Williams: Still Alive

The coda to his rise to fame is familiar "Behind the Music" material. Paul Williams: Still Alive boasts fantastic, non-YouTube-able archival footage, some of it dug up from the man's own self-storage vaults. One particularly revelatory clip shows Williams and Peter Lawford, zonked beyond belief, on "The Mike Douglas Show." Lawford was a devotee of Philadelphia's cocaine and needed a credible excuse to tell his family he was paying a visit, and Williams was more than happy to abet him by inviting him to guest during a week of co-hosting. Terrifying home movies from an early '80s family Christmas show Williams playing in the bathroom with a lighter that gives off a foot-long flame, a moment right up there with Steven Drozd shooting up in the Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks.

Sober and culturally marginal since 1990, Williams is the credibly self-analyzing center of Kessler's documentary. The film slots neatly alongside a number of recent first-person, highly subjective non-fiction works in which a person obsessed with their pop culture past tracks down the source (cf. Ben Steinbauer's Winnebago Man and Mark Moskowitz's The Stone Reader). The pattern is the same: after much travel and many false leads, the reluctantly tracked-down subject cozies up to their admirer. In these films, annoying interviewers redeem themselves by being diligent sleuths and never being less than honest with their interview subjects, even if they risk alienating them as a result. For Kessler, finding his subject is easy; getting him to stop glaring at the camera is the real challenge.

Paul Williams: Still Alive

Kessler toys with a PBS-style voiceover, launching into a portentous ramble about Williams' Omaha childhood over black-and-white photos that are given the full Ken Burns effect. The gag lasts a minute before the soggy score stops and Williams chews out Kessler for interrupting him mid-anecdote. Kessler can be a pest, but he's mostly good company with the patience and money to follow his subject for two years and four months. The first gig he tags along for is a multi-night stand at San Francisco's York Hotel. A sign notes Sally Kellerman is booked for later in the year, emphasizing Williams' footnote status.

TV trumps the music, which Kessler doesn't show much love. There are montages of present-day concert crowds showing their love for Williams, and the soundtrack's larded with his work. But Kessler seems to have none of the devotion of, say, the fan I met at a screening of Phantom of the Paradise who hummed his way through the screening and said he'd seen it 100 times. The 1974 Brian De Palma rock musical has a serious cult, but you'd never know from this movie that Williams wrote not just soft-rock ballads for the lonely-hearted and upbeat pop tunes for radio consumption but enjoyably nasty tunes like closing-credits ditty "The Hell Of It" ("Good for nothing, bad in bed/Nobody liked you, you're better off dead.")

"Though your music lingers on, all of us are glad you're gone," Williams sang in Phantom, seemingly prophesying his potential fate. But Paul Williams: Still Alive turns into a surprisingly upbeat portrait of life as a second-tier star performing wherever they'll have you: driving to Las Vegas casinos, flying to the Philippines despite State Department warnings not to do so, posing uncomplainingly for infinite photographs. Trips to the nostalgic archives alternate with a winning portrait of Williams' third act. Short and snappy, Paul Williams: Still Alive adroitly juxtaposes an archaic form of fame with one of its practitioners' present-day survival.

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Posted by ahillis at June 7, 2012 3:03 PM