There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Paul Williams Still Alive.
For a lot of folks the name Paul WIlliams might not ring any bells, and if it does, that bell is very likely Daft Punk’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories, for which Williams wrote a couple of tracks (including the eerie Touch, which also featured him on vocals) and he was even the “mouthpiece” of the monolithically silent group for their Album Of The Year Grammy win. In truth, Williams has been around for decades, but this most recent chapter in his life that thrust him back into our cultural awareness comes just after Stephen Kessler wrapped filming on his documentary Paul Williams Still Alive, and that might be for the best.
Paul Williams had a certain Zelig-like omnipresence during his mid-70s heyday. Not only was he was seemingly everywhere at the same time for a full decade or so, but his immaculate contributions to pop music have stood the test of time. A quick glance at Williams’ lengthy resume fingers him as the songwriter behind "An Old Fashioned Love Song" for Three Dog Night, "Fill Your Heart" for David Bowie, "Rainy Days and Mondays" for The Carpenters, and "Rainbow Connection" for the one and only Kermit The Frog (Kermie if you’re nasty). He won a Grammy and an Academy Award for "Evergreen" from the film A Star Is Born and he played the devilish villain Swan in Brian De Palma's underrated dark rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. He was one of Johnny Carson’s most frequent and favorite guests on The Tonight Show (and with good reason), and his talent and charm regularly landed him roles on network shows be them goofy bit parts or as himself on game-shows. Like many of his peers, drugs and alcohol were Williams’ downfall, but he’s been clean and sober for over two decades now, having rebuilt his life, his career, and his family over the years.
Given all of the meaty potential of Paul Williams’ story though, Stephen Kessler (best known for directing Vegas Vacation and a few memorable fast food commercials) has ill-advisedly woven the story of Stephen Kessler throughout the film. Sometimes including a certain level of behind-the-scenes meta commentary has worked out in the history of film, but in this instance you find yourself feeling bad for Williams and his wife having to put up with this insufferable guy with a camera who won’t seem to leave them alone. That Still Alive manages to get any traction at all is thanks entirely to Paul Williams’ seemingly bottomless wells of grace, humility, and outright magnetic charisma. The most interesting thing about the film was that Kessler, himself washed up with a comparative dearth of anything resembling an artistic legacy, is almost gleeful (but never malicious) in highlighting the fact that Williams is out there performing his deep cache of hits for blue-haired old ladies on the casino circuit. Of all the documentaries I’ve had the pleasure to discuss in this column so far, Paul Williams Still Alive reps the direst ratio of subject talent to filmmaker ability, which is a real shame.
To be fair, and against all understanding, Williams takes a shine to Kessler and sincerely opens up to him on camera. For all the knocks you can leverage against Paul Williams Still Alive, you have to give it up that Williams grants the filmmaker a profound amount of access, even if the end product occasionally veers uncomfortably close to being exploitive. Sure, you get to watch Williams supportively sharing his own rock-bottom testimony to a room full of other former addicts, which is as funny as it is sad, but you also get footage of Williams in the throes of laryngitis with his voice leaving him on stage. Despite these little unnecessary embarrassments (who would want fleetingly petty squabbles with their wife aired publicly?) there’s a wealth of footage of Williams performing and appearing on an untold number of variety shows from the era, most notably a skydiving stunt from Circus Of The Stars. Maybe someday someone will come along and do a better job getting this story down, and given all the number and intensity of ups and downs in his career so far, teaming up with Daft Punk might be a footnote compared to what whatever comes next.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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