A title can say a lot, but in the case of Stephen Kessler’s 2012 documentary on Paul Williams, it says it all. The film opens with Kessler believing Paul Williams to be dead. If that’s not a great way to start a film about Paul Williams, I don’t know what is.
For those unfamiliar with him, Paul Williams is the man who wrote the soundtrack to the 1970s. His range of work varied from A Star is Born to the beloved-by-many Phantom of the Paradise to the original Muppet Movie—and that’s not even scraping the surface. Kermit the Frog’s classic “The Rainbow Connection,” The Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays”—those were Paul Williams, too, along with about fifty other 1970s anthems. So how could so iconic a figure be so unremembered, even though his fingerprints are all over a decade of American musical history? That’s one of the questions that Kessler sets out to answer in his film. After all, even a self-proclaimed Williams’ fan like Kessler had no idea the songwriter was still alive.
One of the most thoughtful aspects of Paul Williams: Still Alive is how it came to be, and really, how it managed to continue to exist throughout the process of filmmaking. This is as much a story about Williams relationship with Kessler as it is about Williams. That’s what makes the film so endearing—it captures that strange relationship between film subject and filmmaker, something that is carefully hidden in most documentaries. Self-reflexive to the core, there’s no story of Williams in this film without the intertwined story of Kessler.
The constant intercutting between past and present in Paul Williams: Still Alive is one of the film’s finest qualities. Kessler could have made the film without Williams’ participation, but what’s interesting is that he does have him. Throughout the film, Kessler interrupts the telling of Williams’ story with moments from the actual filming itself— and more specifically, his attempt to win the songwriter’s approval on the idea of making a film in the first place. Paul Williams: Still Alive was no two-month project; it was a two year endeavor—and this becomes very evident in the amount of sincerity and personal detail that it contains.
The irony of this film is also one of its treasures. In the 1970s, Paul Williams was known to steal the spotlight from even the most beloved entertainers (he had his fair share of variety show appearances and entertainment interviews), yet his unwillingness to exert the same star power in this 2012 documentary is fascinating. In fact, Williams practically orders Kessler to join him in front of the camera. In the end, Williams’ stubborn insistence pays off for Kessler—the songwriter drops his guard and partakes in a sort of rough-yet-genuine conversation with the director. The inclusion of these scenes help Paul Williams: Still Alive come across as genuine and unmanufactured, and that’s a beautiful thing.
And as for Paul Williams—yes, he’s still alive. Alive and kicking. Last we heard, he had met this director named Kessler…
Director: Stephen Kessler
Writer: Stephen Kessler
Starring: Paul Williams
Release Date: June 8, 2012