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In the early and mid-1970ís there was a celebrity that no American television set owner could get away from.  He was an odd-looking creature; tiny at 5í2Ē, chubby, with a bright, blonde feathery Ďdo and huge spectacles.  Paul Williams was probably one of the least-likely celebrities anywhere, yet he seemed to be everywhere; riding a wave of success as the writer of some of the decadesí biggest pop songs.  He won Oscars for Evergreen, sung by Barbra Streisand for the film A Star is Born, and later for The Rainbow Connection, sung by Kermit the Frog for The Muppet Movie.  The Carpentersí version of Williamsí bank commercial jungle, Weíve Only Just Begun became the biggest wedding song of the 1970ís.  Not stopping at songwriting or performing, Williams forayed into acting in full monkey makeup for Battle for Planet of the Apes and starred in the popular Smokey and the Bandit films.  His innumerable television appearances werenít just on every major talk and variety show, like the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Sonny and Cher, but he practically lived on The Love Boat.  Then, as the eighties rolled in, inexplicably, Williams was gone; nowhere to be seen or heard.  Since then, itís been kind of a pop culture curiosity as to what became of the once-ubiquitous star.  Director Stephen Kessler took his curiosity about that very question further and pursued Williams for this documentary, Paul Williams: Still Alive.

Starting with a montage of clips of Williamsí appearances on the various television shows he remembers from his childhood, Kessler shares his identification with the star and why he admired him.  Williams was simply not the typical face or figure of a rock star, which made him an oddball, but one who never let his *ahem* shortcomings stand in his way, which made him a hero to Kessler, who began life as a shy, awkward boy from Queens, NY.  Williams was the first one to crack the short jokes and thus disarmed and charmed the entire country into accepting him.  Truth be told, his sensitive songs of longing, loneliness and lost loves had already half put him over with the masses and was another aspect of the mystique that endeared Williams to the director.  Kessler regales us with the first stirrings of the birth of the film; how he came to approach Williams about doing the documentary and his own doubts about the entire project.  These misgivings make an interesting subtext as it seems that Kessler, whoíd previously made a couple of narrative features and was mostly doing TV spots at the time, simply has no idea what heís doing either in his construct of this film, or in how to handle his subject, who, in turn, seems as bewildered as to why he agreed to do the movie as Kessler is in making it.  Their mutual discomfort, including Williamsí frustration with having a camera on him in a far more intrusive manner than he ever had before at what is a relatively quiet point in his life, makes for much of the humour in Paul Williams: Still Alive, of which thereís plenty.  From its prickly beginnings, mostly due to Kesslerís documentarian cluelessness, to the slow bond that develops between subject and director, the movie is charming.  It says much for Williamsí grace and patience that the whole thing wasnít called off minutes after Kesslerís tongue-tied, feckless first meeting.  For a man who was on everyoneís TV sets for about a decade, Williams really dislikes having a camera on him when heís not actually performing, but seems to see some value in the project.  Making special appearances at campy festivals for his Brian De Palma-directed bomb, The Phantom of the Paradise, playing casinos way off the Vegas Strip and considering gigs in parts of Southeast Asia that are on the US no-fly list, Williams has no illusions about how his star has fallen, but seems content to just keep working.  Some of the filmís real tension occurs when Kessler asks what the entire audience is wondering; what was it like for Williams to have enjoyed such stratospheric fame only to plummet into virtual obscurity so suddenly?  Williams bristles badly at even beginning the conversation.  Of course it must be an awful thing for one in his position to think about, but the friction isnít caused solely by a bruised ego: As the movie progresses, the audience comes to realise quickly what it takes some time for Kessler to suss out; that for all his laurels, Williams is simply not a creature of the past. 

Despite having had everything, losing much of it, including two wives and the adulation of cheering crowds and fighting through addiction; Williams lives very much in the present, always moving forward.  He might be one of the most well-adjusted celebrities Iíve ever seen, as the movieís hilarious chronicle of their tour through the Philippines attests; with Kessler terrified that they will be attacked by Al Qaeda and Williams taking everything in stride.  The singerís good-natured attitude and adaptability is downright inspiring.  Williams isnít in denial about any of it; he fully admits to his faults and is incredibly open about his struggle with alcohol and drugs, having actually become a drug counselor and remaining active in rehabilitation charities.  However, the only problem with always looking forward may be that sometimes when you stop and look back - as is required in a story about oneís life - whatís behind you can be horrifying.  One of the most startling moments of the film comes near its finale when Kessler plays Williams footage of himself toward the end of his popularity, hosting a talk show, obviously blitzed out of his mind on drugs and barely coherent, wearing sunglasses to cover up pupils the size of manhole covers.  Itís shocking to not only the audience, but to the man, himself.  The utter cravenness of the character he became toward the decline of his fame most offends Williams, as does the effect his fast living took on his family, especially his children.  Seeing the devastating effect that one clip has on Williams, the viewer understands at least in part how he is so able to put that era of his life in a box, and why he feels so much happier today.  Itís a very fitting end to the film and a statement of how close the director and subject have become that Williams actually gives Kessler a box full of VHS tapes of old TV appearances and never asks for them back.  The only piece of footage Williams asks Kessler to keep for him is one of the songwriter falling through the air in an unaccompanied skydive as free, happy and full of life as can be.

Charming, poignant and very funny, Paul Williams: Still Alive is a wonderful testament to a truly gifted artist for whom the end of fame was not remotely the end for him.

 

 

Exclusive Interview with

Paul Williams

 

The Lady Miz Diva: What made you feel that now was the time for a documentary about your life?

Paul Williams: Well, Stephen Kessler asked me and my first reaction was, ĎBack away!í  I didnít wanna do it.  I didnít need the attention.  I didnít want the attention.  I love my privacy.  And then as we began to work on it, I realised that it was also a chance to really talk about recovery, a chance to talk about music creatorsí rights; about things that Iím really passionate about.  And I think that ultimately it was something that my kids would really want.

 

LMD:  Youíre so well known as both a songwriter and performer, I wondered if there was ever a version of one of your songs you heard someone interpret and thought, ĎOkay, thatís it, I canít do that one anymore. This personís got it, it belongs to them.í?

PW:  You know what?  The great part of the ride was all the different people that did the songs.  To have an Elvis cut {Where Do I Go From Here}.  To have a Sinatra cut {Never Before, Never Again}.  To have all those recordings of my songs; you sit there and you look at your name next to Elvisí name in the little font with P. Williams, youíd go, ďOh my god, whatís happened to my life?Ē  It was a wonderful way to make a living.  We just have to make sure that kids coming up can continue to make a viable living with their skills.

 

LMD:  I think a lot of people of a certain generation might know you best for a song sung by a certain green fella; your BFF, Kermit the Frog.  Did you write The Rainbow Connection specifically for The Muppet Movie, or was it a piece you had previously composed?

PW:  I wrote all the songs with Kenny Ascher for The Muppet Movie.  We wrote all the songs from The Muppet Movie, Kenny and I.  We wrote most of the songs for A Star is Born together.  Iíve had a couple of collaborators through the years; he has been one of my most recurring collaborators.

 

LMD:  Did you have a sense when you wrote The Rainbow Connection that it was going to be a special and well-received as it was, even winning an Oscar?

PW:  We thought we had done something really good.  We were really excited.

 

LMD:  I wonder if you could give us some insight about new music I understand youíve been working on with a couple of guys from France?

PW:  Daft Punk!  I have been working with them.  But you know, theyíve also asked that we have a press blackout on that till the album comes out, so Iím not gonna talk about that until the album comes out.  Iíve been having a really good time with them.

 

LMD:  Do you have any idea when weíll see that new album?

PW:  Theyíre mixing right now. Theyíre just starting the mix.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 4th, 2012

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of Abramorama)

 

 

 

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