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Paul Williams Still Alive
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by Jay Seaver

"... and with a new friend."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: It's okay to look at the title of "Paul Williams Still Alive" and have a reaction somewhere between dismissal and dread. Documentaries about musicians who have faded into obscurity in part due to substance abuse are so common that festivals might as well list them as their own program. This one, at least, finds a couple of ways to present things differently, although the results are a somewhat mixed bag.

It's easy to be wary of these differences from the start, when director Stephen Kessler's description of Williams's career as a singer/songwriter/celebrity in the 1970s focuses just as much on how he viewed it as an awkward kid in New York as it does on Williams's actual work, if not more so. For all that he was a huge fan, Kessler assumed (as many did) that Williams had died sometime in the 1980s, only to learn of the man doing an appearance at a screening of Phantom of the Paradise (the truly bizarre 1974 Brian De Palma update of The Phantom of the Opera in which Williams played the villain as well as writing the songs) in Winnipeg. Once there, Kessler asks permission to tag along and make a documentary on Williams's life and career, although Williams often proves to be a reluctant subject.

Paul Williams Still Alive won't necessarily be disappointing to those looking for a straightforward biography, but there's a lot of Stephen Kessler in the movie, even if he does not always appear on camera all that much. It's a balance that the movie quite often struggles with; having an idea of just how intrusive and annoying having someone chronicle your life can be makes Williams's clear annoyance at various points funny as opposed to really uncomfortable, but Kessler lays it on rather thick at times. The filmmaker's initial fannish excitement at hanging out with Williams the way he'd dreamed of doing as a kid giving way to the discovery of a real human being rather than just a celebrity persona eventually becomes the actual story the movie tells. There are a lot of times, especially toward the start, when many in the audience will wish for Kessler to fade into the background because he's not what they came to see, and even when he starts to feel more integral, that first impression can be hard to shake.

He doesn't completely usurp the movie from Williams, though, and while the twenty-first century model of Paul Williams is much more restrained than the one shown in various clips from thirty and forty years earlier, the maturity is an interesting contrast. Williams seems to have a better grasp than many on what sort of man he was in his youth and what he should or should not regret, and while his conversations with Kessler often seem humorously hostile - it's unusually easy to place oneself in his position and see the documentary process as surreal - they can be surprisingly revealing.

They are most revealing in combination with his actions, though. At various points in the movie (mostly taken from one long interview), Williams talks about his youthful desire to be "special" rather than "different" when explaining all the odd television appearances and other stunts he did during his heyday, and the audience will nod along with it, seeing it as true, if not necessarily deep, more so because his back gets a bit up when Kessler seems to mock it. The clever bit is that there's a tour of the Philippines midway through the movie that is played up for how Paul and Stephen become closer as they spend a couple of weeks far from home and how Williams is still famous there, but underneath, it's connecting today's Paul Williams to the one who would do anything back in the day. Kessler does an impressive job of combining past and present footage to tell a story without much of the typical self-destruction-and-redemption arc, arriving at an unusual climax and message.

Well, maybe it's not so unusual for one of these movies to be as much about letting things go as holding on. It's more the case here, and the focus on Kessler as well as Williams makes it a bit different - a little more demanding that the typical musician documentary, but not necessarily in a bad way.

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originally posted: 05/15/12 10:18:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/06/16 Mr Right Fascinating subject, but nearly obscured by vapid motormouth dickhead director 2 stars
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  DVD: 05-Feb-2013



Directed by
  Stephen Kessler

Written by
  Stephen Kessler


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