Does the name Paul Williams mean anything to you? It should, because he’s awesome. Singer, songwriter, and actor, he was a big part of my childhood, and if you were sentient during the seventies, you couldn’t help knowing being aware of him. He was everywhere, and before I review Paul Williams Still Alive—a documentary by Stephen Kessler that recently played at the Seattle International Film Festival—I need to remind you exactly how cool he is.
The Songs: He wrote “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. I could just stop there, and that would be enough, but he also wrote “Evergreen,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “You and Me Against the World,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” and the lyrics to the Love Boat theme. All your Seventies belong to him.
The Muppet Show: Season 1, episode 8. He sang “An Old Fashioned Love Song” with two Paul Williams Muppets. Not to mention all the other Muppet stuff he did. Did I mention he wrote “The Rainbow Connection”?
Smokey and the Bandit: He’s Little Enos. If I have to tell you why that is cool, there may be no hope for you. (Okay, I may be overreacting on this one. I love Smokey and the Bandit so much that “Eastbound and Down” is my wedding song.)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes: Yes, he was Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
Circus of the Stars: He jumped out of a plane. For those of you who are too young to have seen Circus of the Stars, you have no idea.
Sobriety: Yup, like many people looking for outside validation, Paul Williams got caught up in booze and drugs and did a lot of things that he’s not proud of. So, he took control of his life, got sober, and stopped being such a jerk. He also became a drug and alcohol counselor and helped other people recover from their addictions—not as flashy as the other stuff, but probably more enriching.
Unfortunately, this film is not nearly as awesome as Paul Williams is. Director Stephen Kessler has been a big fan of Williams since childhood, and at times this movie feels like it’s just an opportunity for him to hang out with his hero. And I get that; I love Paul Williams, too. But I love him in a non-creepy way, and Kessler kind of loves him like a stalker. He narrates this movie and spends a sizable chunk of it talking about his relationship with Paul Williams and how he wants to hang out at his house, but Williams won’t invite him over. The biggest mistake that Kessler makes with this movie is that he is going for a reality-TV style documentary instead of letting Williams tell his own very interesting story. Early in the movie, Williams makes a suggestion that Kessler put himself in the movie, so he doesn’t have to pretend the camera isn’t there all the time. This was a very bad idea, because Kessler is not that interesting, and every moment not spent on Williams is annoying, because Kessler keeps trying to manufacture tension where there is none. Towards the end of the movie, Williams goes on tour in the Philippines and Kessler freaks out because there is terrorist activity there and he is afraid. So afraid that he won’t leave the hotel or eat the food. But, by the end of the tour, nothing bad has happened, and Kessler has learned a valuable lesson about something…though I don’t know what. That’s nice, but it doesn’t belong in this movie.
Paul Williams Still Alive works much better when the focus is where is should be—on Williams. He talks honestly about feeling different when he was young, and it becomes apparent pretty quickly that his height of 5’2” was only part of why he felt out of place. Being different and being special are not the same thing, and he spent a great deal of his career passionately trying to make himself and others feel that he was “special.” His music resonates with all types of people, because he was not afraid to deal with issues such as loneliness and sorrow, but that kind of success wasn’t enough. He needed much more validation and took every opportunity to appear before the public, drugs and alcohol helping to fuel his sense of self-importance. The film doesn’t go into his recovery, which I thought was odd, since it’s such a big part of his life, and Kessler doesn’t really let Williams dwell on any one story for too long, which is frustrating. There is a lot of following Williams around where nothing happens, because he is just a guy living his life. He’s not a reality star, and he doesn’t want to play up to the camera. He comes off as grumpy, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is real and how much is invented by Kessler to create conflict. (He doesn’t seem to understand that there is already enough tension in Williams’s story to keep us entertained.)
This film is not nearly as good as it should be—Williams deserves better, and so do we. But I would be remiss if I told you not to watch it; there is just enough here to keep it interesting. Williams is special not because is famous, but because—through his talent and drug outreach—he was able to help other people with their feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. I just wish this film showed more of that.
Final Grade: C+