Alright, so the truth is, when I bought my tickets for this movie, a large part of the reason was that the photo online featured Paul Williams posing with The Muppets, and I’ve been suffering from a great deal of Muppet nostalgia ever since seeing the new movie. I had no idea who Paul Williams was, but the description sounded interesting (I always enjoy a reluctant documentary subject), so Idecided to give it a shot. Ultimately, the movie was hilarious and enjoyable even without a background knowledge of Paul Williams, and even though The Muppets ended up playing essentially no role in the film.
If you are like me and have never heard of Paul Williams, he is a songwriter who penned songs for many top acts in the 1970s, including Three Dog Night, The Carpenters, and yes, The Muppets, among many many others. Because of his entertaining personality, sense of humor, and probably also because of his notably short stature, he became popular as well as a frequent guest on shows such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Hollywood Squares. He later devolved into drug and alcohol addiction and vanished from mainstream view. Paul Williams Still Alive is the story of director and lifelong Williams fan Stephen Kessler discovering that contrary to his ownbelief, Paul Williams was in fact still alive and touring. In addition to performing a musical act in small venues for a niche but devoted fan base, he had also gotten sober and become a licensed substance abuse counselor and is active in the field of addiction and recovery. Kessler, in his own words, immediately knew that Williams would make an ideal documentary subject, and approached Williams about the project.
Williams proved to be less than keen, and the documentary ended up being primarily about Williams’ tense relationship with Kessler and his discomfort with having his personal life exposed and on camera. As the film goes on, Kessler and Williams develop, not a friendship, but a working relationship, and they are able to have a few deeper, reflective interviews, a couple of which are completely riveting.
From the first moments, the movie is absolutely hilarious. Kessler is almost channeling Morgan Spurlock as he navigates the dual roles of subject and filmmaker, and as he truly masters the difficult and nuanced art of the comical narration. The movie is as much about his own experiences and struggles as he attempts to document the reluctant Williams, which results in some hilarious moments, such as when Kessler, abandoned in the hotel yet again by Williams, resorts to conducting painfully boring interviews with the hotel staff.
However, there are moments when Kessler allows himself to take the project too personally. This is particularly evident in Kessler’s interactions with Williams’ wife, whom Kessler suspects is trying to prevent any meaningful interactions being filmed. In fact, a few scenes seemed to have been shrewdly edited to present Williams’ wife in an unfairly unflattering light, which momentarily took me out of the documentary feel and made me question the validity of the narrative voice.
But where I think the film meets its greatest setback is in Kessler’s initial lack of vision. He says that he could immediately tell that Williams would be an excellent documentary subject, but we never learn exactly what that original movie would have been about. Simply following a washed up songwriter around to his various gigs? If that was his initial pitch to Williams, I’m not surprised that he was less than enthusiastic. Although this original concept, whatever it was, would never have been realized anyway, I think the film ultimately suffered somewhat for its lack of focus, leaving
it to feel a bit shallow in its ambitions. I suspect that the film’s title, Paul Williams Still Alive, may be self-consciously poking fun at that fact, admitting that a movie simply about the fact that someone is still alive would not be altogether very interesting. That being said, Kessler pulls it all together well in the last ten minutes of the movie with a narrative about how Paul Williams spends his life only looking forward, never looking back, and how that’s a lesson that Kessler needs to learn in his own life. (I know that sounds horribly hackneyed when I say that, but it actually worked in the movie. It just would have been nice if something with a bit more depth had run throughout the film, and not just at the very end.)
While not perfect, I very much enjoyed this film. I laughed throughout, and I found Paul Williams to be a fascinating and compelling subject. (That will probably come as no surprise to people who actually know who Paul Williams is.) Kessler, while he got a little too caught up with himself at times, was also very endearing and adept as both filmmaker and subject. No doubt this film would be even more entertaining in a totally different way to a Paul Williams fan, but even to the novice it has quite a bit to offer.