WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was originally written ten years ago.
On June 27, 2012, singer and songwriter Paul Williams along with filmmaker Stephen Kessler appeared at the Nuart Theatre in support of their documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive.” After its conclusion, both men were greeted by a packed audience that had been deeply moved by what they just witnessed. The documentary follows up with Williams years after his enormous success back in the 1970s, and it finds him experiencing happiness and fulfillment in life he didn’t have back then.
Kessler has described making this documentary as “a labor of love,” but Williams quickly pointed out that it didn’t start that way. Their relationship when filming began was an uncomfortable one, but Williams eventually warmed up to Kessler, and their strong friendship proved to be very authentic as they talked with the audience at the Nuart. Kessler even went out of his way to say the following:
“I’ve never said this in front of people before, but you (Williams) were brave to do this movie.”
No one in the audience disagreed with this assessment. Williams described this as a “warts and all documentary” that shows him at his best and worst. One particular sequence, when he was co-hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show while on drugs, was one he originally wanted to be cut out as he was terribly afraid of what his kids would think about him. His son Cole, however, was in the audience, and when asked about what he thought of the documentary, he said, “It’s great dad!”
Kessler made it clear he had no intention of putting himself in this documentary, and he even said he “can’t stand movies that do that;” directors becoming the subject of their own films. His increased participation in “Paul Williams Still Alive,” however, helped to illuminate the songwriter much more than it would have without him. While Kessler keeps going back to the past, Williams looks to the future instead.
When Williams was asked when he reached his bottom as an alcoholic, he responded it happened when he started looking out the window for what he called the “tree police.” He even joked and said, “You know you’re an alcoholic when you’ve misplaced an entire decade.” What made him say this was the embarrassing truth that he forgot for a time that Ronald Reagan was once President of the United States.
Since becoming sober, Williams says he now knows what it feels like to be around people he feels safe with. He has also entered into what he calls his “Paulie Lama” period of life as he goes out of his way to pull people off of bar stools, and that he would be thrilled to work at the Betty Ford Center if asked.
1992’s “A Muppet Christmas Carol” marked the first project Williams ever did sober, and he remembered going into it feeling very scared. But after he finished working on it, he found he was able to approach his work in a more productive way:
“Success for me has to be about authenticity and honesty. Today I have to trust that I am enough. Never again will I ever let tension and my ego keep me from writing songs.” The emcee of the Nuart told us not to ask either of the two how much “Paul Williams Still Alive” cost to make or when it will come out on DVD. This is because he wants to see it again with as a big an audience in the midst of all these summer blockbusters being thrust at us. It is certainly one of the sweetest documentaries you will ever see, and to see Williams today is to see a man very comfortable with who he is and who does not need another cup of fame to feel better about himself.
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.