Underseen Movie: ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’

Going into this documentary, I thought it would be one of those great comeback stories of a fallen celebrity who gets their dormant career resurrected through the help of one die-hard fan. But while filmmaker Stephen Kessler seems intent on reminding the world of what this gifted songwriter has given us, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is not that kind of documentary. Instead, it’s a story of a man whose life was run into the ground by a strong addiction to fame and drugs, and of his journey back to a place of happiness and fulfillment he is ever so thankful for today. This is not an artist looking to make a comeback, but of one who appreciates what they have to where not much more is needed than that. As a result, this makes “Paul Williams Still Alive” one of the sweetest and most life affirming documentaries I have seen in some time.

Kessler is best known for having directed many popular television commercials and “Vegas Vacation,” a sequel which rated high in test screenings, but still turned out to be a dud. Kessler starts off this documentary recounting how he grew up being such a big fan of Williams and of how the songwriter seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s. Williams appeared on “The Muppet Show,” made numerous appearances on television shows such as “Beretta,” and he became an incredibly popular guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. On top of that, he composed the music for “The Muppet Movie,” the cult classic “Phantom of The Paradise,” and eventually won an Oscar along with Barbara Streisand for the song “Evergreen.”

Somewhere along the line, Kessler assumed Williams had passed away at far too young an age. But while ordering one of Williams’ albums on the internet one night, he discovers to his surprise that the singer and songwriter is still very much alive and continues to create and perform music throughout the world. From there, Kessler makes it his mission to make a movie about Williams in an effort to let the world today know how much of an impact his music has had on all of us and still does to this day. Remember, he was a featured artist on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”

Kessler started filming Williams when the songwriter visited Winnipeg, Canada where a fan convention for “Phantom of The Paradise” was taking place. This collaboration gets off to a rocky start as Williams shows a sharp reluctance to being filmed. There’s even a moment where he is singing in a San Francisco nightclub and gets the house manager to dim the lights so Kessler can’t get a good view of him onstage. As for Kessler, his solution to this problem provides this documentary with one of its funniest moments.

In some ways William’s reluctance is refreshing because, in a time where we are constantly flooded with reality shows with people becoming famous just for the sake of being famous, he is not keen about being part of this. In fact, it doesn’t take long to see he is not the least bit interested in becoming famous again like he once was as he has described the pursuit of fame as being in his own words, “pathetic.” As this documentary goes on, the narrative focuses much more on the person he is today, a much healthier human being who is humble and thankful for what he has.

“Paul Williams Still Alive” does give us a brief biography of the songwriter and of how he grew up with an alcoholic father who made him sing “Danny Boy,” and that his being so short ended up ostracizing him from his classmates at school. He comes to blame his lack of height on hormones being injected into him early in life. This was done to make him taller, but it ended up having the exact opposite effect. After moving out to Los Angeles to become a film actor, he ended up finding success as a songwriter which eventually turned him into a huge celebrity. The attention it gave him was something he came to live for, and it would eventually become an even bigger addiction for him than drugs.

As time goes on, Williams eventually warms up to Kessler, and this becomes clear during a trip to the Philippines. Williams even encourages Kessler to join him in front of the camera instead of just staying behind it, and that is saying a lot. Now this might have proven disastrous as “Paul Williams Still Alive” could have ended up becoming more about the filmmaker than his subject, but Kessler’s increased involvement proves to be a major plus. The relationship between these two men helps to define Williams as he is today.

While Kessler constantly looks to the past, Williams only wants to look forward. The one scene which makes this clear is when Williams watches himself guest hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show. Clearly high on drugs and making an absolute fool of himself, the realization of what he was doing back then forces him to stop watching the rest of the footage. The person Williams was back then is so different from who he is today, and the pain which crosses his face over his embarrassing past deeds is impossible to hide.

Near the end, Williams gives Kessler a whole bunch of videotapes he has in storage, having no idea of what’s on them. One particularly disturbing video has Williams celebrating Christmas with his family, and then later going upstairs to film himself getting high. Watching this illustrates just how far down the songwriter’s drug addiction took him and, looking at him today, it’s almost like we’re looking at a completely different person.

It should be clear by now that Kessler is not out to embarrass Williams in the slightest. Instead, his intention is to bring the songwriter back to the world’s attention, and this is a noble intention indeed. Williams is the same man who wrote the song “Rainbow Connection” for Kermit the Frog, “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters, and “An Old-Fashioned Song” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for himself. Heck, he even did the music for “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” one of my favorite holiday specials ever.

Today, Williams continues to make beautiful music which deals with themes like love, loneliness and alienation, and he definitely deserves to be recognized for the countless music contributions he has given us. Maybe not everyone has forgotten who he is, but we do need to be reminded of what he has created.

Now some have accused “Paul Williams Still Alive” of not including more of his music, but this documentary is not intended to be a career retrospective. In actuality, it becomes more about how Williams is a better, not to mention a far more interesting, human being today compared to when he was an overindulgent celebrity. He has been clean and sober for over 20 years, and he is even a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Looking back, it seems as though he lives to be a counselor more than he wants to create new music, and that is saying a lot.

With “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Kessler has given us far more than the average showbiz documentary. He has given us an individual worth appreciating who, while having made some serious mistakes in life, has come out of it on the other side a proud and happy person. All of this is all accomplished without Kessler ever trying to be manipulative or play at our heartstrings unnecessarily. This is a warts-and-all documentary which doesn’t hide anything, and I came out of it with not just a deep respect for Williams, but also for his healthy perspective on life.

During a time which sees certain celebrities desperately grasping for whatever fame is available to them, here is one who has found the happiness we all mistakenly thought we would get when we became a super star in everyone’s eyes. In the end, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is more about what it means to be happy, and Williams has more than earned the happiness he has today. Like he says, he does not need “another cup of fame” to make him a satisfied man.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘The Rum Diary’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011, long before a certain Hollywood couple’s relationship became toxic and imploded in front of the whole world. Also, Ralph Garman recently featured this film as a Video Vault selection on “The Ralph Report,” and I applaud him for doing so.

Based on the book written by the late Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” captures the Gonzo journalist at perhaps his earliest point in life which came to define his style of writing. Johnny Depp plays Jack Kemp, but as he did with his character of Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” he is essentially channeling Thompson here whom he had befriended years ago. It also marks Bruce Robinson’s first directorial effort in 19 years (the last being “Jennifer 8”), and he clearly has not lost his touch.

Kemp is a rootless journalist who has come to Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. Having had his fill of New York and the Eisenhower administration, he longs to escape to a paradise that will not make him feel his age. But as beautiful as Puerto Rico is, there is an ugliness that cuts away at the façade which the other newspaper employees escape from through their use of drugs and alcohol, especially rum. Kemp also comes across American businessman Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who wants Kemp to write a favorable report on his latest greedy scheme, and that is to turn Puerto Rico into a paradise for the wealthy. Soon Kemp will have to decide if he wants to use his words to help Sanderson or expose him for the “bastard” he truly is.

No other actor can successfully emulate the brilliant craziness of Thompson like Depp can. Unlike in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” his Hunter-esque character of Kemp is a little more down to earth. Of course, this is only saying so much. Having been freed, albeit temporarily, from those “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, he gives one of his best performances in a while as he takes Kemp from the highs of his chemical dependency to showing his more vulnerable side as he falls for Sanderson’s fiancée, Chenault (the ever so beautiful Amber Heard).

“The Rum Diary” also features terrific performances from a perfectly chosen supporting cast. Michael Rispoli is great fun as photojournalist Bob Salas who is the first real friend Kemp makes in Puerto Rico. Richard Jenkins never lets that wig he’s wearing upstage him as newspaper editor Edward J. Lotterman. Aaron Eckhart finds just the right balance in playing Sanderson as he charms everyone around him and yet hints subtlety at the vicious businessman hiding beneath the surface. But it is Giovanni Ribisi who almost steals the show as Moberg, a hygienically challenged religion reporter always under the influence of some sort of narcotic.

Robinson also wrote the screenplay and revels in each of the character’s bizarre eccentricities. These are some of the more unusual characters I have seen in any 2011 movie, and they are the kind which has been missing from movies in general. Things do drag a bit towards the end, and I wish he would have brought more of the same manic energy Gilliam brought to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Still, he has managed to make a movie most Hollywood studios rarely, if ever, dare to greenlight these days.

“The Rum Diary” may be a story from the past, but it is a story of rich people displacing native citizens for their own wealthy benefit, something not lost on American audiences these days. The paranoia-filled philosophies of certain characters make the advancement of the Tea Party seem not as big a surprise in hindsight. But as pummeled as Kemp gets, you believe he will get the “bastards” with words, and that his words will bruise his most unforgiving enemies. We all yearn for someone to stick it to the man, and Depp gives us a character who can do just that. Seeing him back in Hunter S. Thompson’s realm is a real treat.

* * * out of * * * *

Trainspotting 2

Trainspotting 2 poster

I actually found myself getting choked up while watching “Trainspotting 2,” a sequel I long believed would never become a reality. The original 1996 film featured youthful characters bursting with life as they inject heroin into their veins and create chaos for everyone and each other. Now it’s 20 years later, and these same characters are now middle-aged and struggling with a future which looks to leave them behind. They are dealing with regrets which eat at them, and are still stuck in a past which constantly gnaws at their conscience. While I can’t say I relate to all the adventures Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie have gone through, I can certainly relate to their current state of mind as their lives are at an impasse to where they have to ask themselves the question David Byrne brought up in a Talking Heads song, “Well, how did I get here?”

When we last saw the “Trainspotting” gang, Renton (Ewan McGregor) had absconded with the money they scored through a heroin deal, and he was determined to go straight and engage in a much more stable lifestyle. “Trainspotting 2” starts with him running on a treadmill only to trip and fall, and it’s enough to show he is not the same man he was before. He has lived in Amsterdam all this time with his wife, but now he is getting divorced and finds his job security to be very shaky, to say the least. Feeling lost in modern society, he decides to return home to Edinburgh, Scotland in an effort to make amends with family and friends.

Everyone is still back in Edinburgh doing their thing. Sick Boy runs a bar which is lucky to have many, if any, patrons walking through the door. In his spare time, he engages in blackmail schemes with his partner and girlfriend, Veronika Kovach (Anjela Nedyalkova). Daniel Murphy/Spud is still in the throes of his heroin addiction which has long since estranged him from his partner Gail and their son Fergus. As for Francis “Franco” Begbie, he has been in prison all this time and just received news that his parole did not go through. So, like any pissed off inmate, he escapes and heads back to Edinburgh to get revenge on those who betrayed him long ago.

When “Trainspotting” came out 20 years ago, it represented a fresh burst of filmmaking energy and felt so different from anything else playing at your local cinema. Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge once again take the works of author Irvine Welsh, in this case his novels “Trainspotting” and “Porno,” to create a motion picture pulsating with an energy lacking in so many others out right now. The fact they can’t quite equal the energy of the original is not a surprise as many imitators came in its wake, and what was once subversive now feels much less so. But I think Boyle intended for this sequel to have a different energy for those reasons as things are different now for the characters and ourselves.

“Trainspotting 2” does traffic in nostalgia as several references to the original are made throughout, but it doesn’t get stuck there to where it comes across as a mere copy of what came before. Moreover, Boyle and Hodge show how these characters are stuck in a past they never fully escaped from. I also have to say it is daring of them to show these characters at this stage in their life as Hollywood is typically afraid of ageism more than they would ever legally admit. Just like in “Logan” and “Creed,” we are forced to see what the winds of change have done to those we grew up watching, and it isn’t always pleasant.

It’s great to see Ewan McGregor back working with Boyle, Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald. McGregor and had a huge falling out with Boyle when the director handed the lead role in “The Beach” over to Leonardo DiCaprio instead of him, and the two ended up not talking for years. Well, whatever happened is now water under the bridge, and it would certainly be unthinkable for Boyle to replace McGregor with another actor. While Renton has suffered through years of regret and decreased vitality, McGregor still brings much of the same boundless energy to the character as he did before. It’s also a thrill to see him engage in one of Renton’s “Choose Life” speeches, especially since it takes on a much more emotional dimension than ever before.

Jonny Lee Miller continues to bring a wonderfully perverted energy to his portrayal of Sick Boy as his criminal exploits are fueled by bitterness and large doses of cocaine. I was especially taken in by Ewan Bremmer’s portrayal of Spud which is funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. We are constantly reminded of how Spud is harmless to anyone but himself, and Bremmer makes the character’s ever so wounded pride all the more palpable throughout.

My hat is really off, however, to Robert Carlyle as he makes Begbie every bit as explosive and lethal as he did 20 years ago. Some actors lose their edge as they get older, but not Carlyle as Begbie is still a volcanic force of nature you best not be around if you value your physical well-being. At the same time, the actor brings an honest vulnerability to the character which is both unexpected and wrenching. It serves as a reminder of how much acting range Carlyle has. Remember, he went from playing Begbie to playing a loving father in “The Full Monty,” and I had to keep pinching myself to realize it was the same actor playing both roles.

In addition, I enjoyed Anjela Nedyalkova’s performance as Veronika, a working girl who sees right through all the men around her and gets to the truth they have yet to realize for themselves. She brings a confident and sassy energy to this sequel, and she is a strong addition to this strong quartet of actors. It was also nice to see Kelly Macdonald reprise her role as Diane who has since become a lawyer. She kept stealing the show from her male co-stars in the original, and she does it again here.

They say you can never go back, but “Trainspotting 2” shows you can, but never all the way. There is a mournful feel to this sequel, but it’s there for good reason. In watching these characters wonder how they ended up at this point in their lives, we are forced to examine our own lives and wonder how we got here. It’s an unnerving prospect for a movie to offer its viewers, but I’m glad this one did even though it almost left me on the verge of tears. There needs to be time for a re-examination of our lives and desires, and we have to find a way to make peace with our past. Boyle and company understand this, and they never back down from exploring these emotionally complicated themes.

The cast and crew of “Trainspotting” have given us a very worthy follow up to their original masterpiece, and it is backed up by strong acting, a kick ass soundtrack, and the invigorating visuals we can always count on Boyle putting up on the silver screen. Yes, “Trainspotting 2” was well worth the wait, but be prepared for it to take a piece out of you. And remember what Renton says: Choose life and be addicted to something good.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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