Paul Williams Still Alive

This is the follow up to last weeks post on the Paul Williams event, tonight we saw the documentary film itself. The film is playing at the Nuart this week and depending on it’s success will find more venues around the country. The screening we went to was sold out but that may be because the director and the subject were both appearing after the movie. There was another Q and A session and some of the same issues were discussed that were covered the week before, although it was less intimate and the time was much shorter. Here I want to focus on the film itself, rather than just the event. I have seen enough documentaries in my lifetime to be able to recognize their formats and styles. In the last twenty years, film makers have dramatically changed the way they choose to present their subjects in these kinds of films. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have inserted themselves into their films as a way to tell their stories. Each of them has outsized personalities and egos that tend to serve their story telling skills quite well. The Director of “Paul Williams Still Alive” is  Stephen Kessler, and he is following in the path blazed by those other two. Kessler though is not a willing “star” of his own feature however. He became a screen presence largely because he had a very resistant subject and a theme that was not going in the manner that a traditional film of this ilk would take.

While Paul Williams is the subject of the film, and his career trajectory and celebrity descent are a part of the story, they are not the focus. This is not a story in the MTV style of  “Where are they Now?”.   Paul Williams it seems is not suffering from a lack of being the center of attention that he was for such a long time in the 70s and 80s. He has changed in ways that will probably seem odd to our fame obsessed, celebrity driven culture. While he may have been one of the founders of that culture, he has come out the other side a wiser and more satisfied human being. Kessler pursued Williams to make the movie and Williams was largely indifferent. Even after he was given permission to film, Williams was uncomfortable being observed so closely, and self conscious of the camera and film maker. There were several years of contact and filming that went on before it strikes each of them how awkwardly the process was going. It is not until Paul directly confronts the elephant in the room that the story finally starts to take shape. Paul confronts Kessler and basically puts the director in the film as a central character.

Instead of a movie about the life of Paul Williams, we get a mediation on the expectations of the director on his subject and on the way his biases are challenged by Williams. For instance, there is one sequence in which Kessler rides with Williams and his wife Marina to a gig in Las Vegas. There are some awkward moments between the three of them over mundane things like where to stop for lunch. She is acting as his manager for the weekend and is shown in what might be an unflattering and unprofessional few moments trying to clear up band comps for the shows while the band is trying to rehearse. Sure the musicians got annoyed, because they were working at the moment and she interrupted them in a seemingly unconscious manner. But guess what, the show went on and there was no other big tension during the performances except for the directors intrusiveness. It is an incident in a professional career, it is not a story indicative of that career. Later on, there is a long trip to a dangerous part of the Philippines. The director is expecting the worst but for the most part Williams just plays the complications as they come up and he is unruffled by minor inconveniences. There is no diva here to focus on and again, the directors expectations become the story rather than the actions of his subject.

Kessler seems to be a nice guy who was moved to this subject matter by a sincere admiration for the song writing skills of his subject. Once he encounters his subject and wrestles with the difficulty of pinning him down for the traditional show and tell of  a celebrity film, he realizes that his own voice needs to be a part of the movie. Because the opening section of the movie focuses on his connection to Paul Williams as a kid, the average viewer might think this is a little narcissistic. I suspect that this became the opening of the film only after Kessler saw where his material was taking him. He does give a brief list of his bonafides, but he does not dwell on himself. He is as a reluctant a focus of the film as Williams was, and this is one of the charms of the story that is told here. The end result is a film that explores intimacy in a celebrity show it all world. Brittany Spears flashing her whohah for paparazzi is not intimacy. Getting someone to reveal a moment from their past might be a moment of intimacy, but seeing how another persons mind works and how emotions are not always easily manufactured  to me are real moments of intimacy. This film manages to do this although not in the way you would have expected.

We do get to see archival footage of Williams on all those TV shows he did. Sometimes we get brief moments of pleasure at hearing his distinctive voice turn some of those phrases in his lyrics into moments of sublime brilliance. There are also the embarrassing, over the top moments that make us pause and think to ourselves, “why would he ever do that?” Williams alcoholism and drug abuse are part of the story, and at times it seems that is the focus that Paul himself wants to spin for this film. While his recovery is central to his life and a part of the film, this is not where we linger. The truth is Paul Williams is as clever and talented as he was forty years ago. The difference is that he is not as needy. He is both celebrity and everyman. Signing autographs for fans and being cheered on stage, but also eating squid at a nondescript Asian restaurant and carrying his own luggage when he travels. When he is confronted by an embarrassing, drug fueled, grandstanding clip of himself hosting Merv Griffin’s show, the current Paul Williams is mortified. Here is where we really get to know him. Someone in the movie put it well, I can’t remember if it was Kessler or Williams, but it seems that Kessler wanted to look back, whereas Williams wants to look forward. The achievement of the film is that it succeeds in doing both of these things at the same time.

Both the film maker and the subject have aspects of themselves that are unflattering, revealed for us on the screen. They also have moments of warmth and honesty and success as the movie comes together. The coda of the film reminds us that Williams has been sober for twenty years, that he has been a certified drug counselor for sixteen years, and that he is has been President of ASCAP, the most important musicians rights organization since 2009. All of those things are important accomplishments, but to me the most important thing the movie showed me was that Paul Williams has become a person that he would not be embarrassed to introduce to his own kids. 

“There’s not a word yet, for old friends who’ve just met…” 

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