Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.
Back in 2008, I fondly remember seeing a doc called “Of All the Things,” which chronicled the incredible and unlikely tour across the Philippines of Dennis Lambert, a songwriter whose hits for others you’ve probably hummed at one point or another, but whose one solo album died a quick death in the U.S. only to become a major smash in Manila. For the first time ever, Lambert was playing huge arenas and Paul Williams was his co-headliner, though he rarely made it into the frame. As it turns out, Williams was followed by a camera crew of his own.
That glimpse of the once-ubiquitous Williams inspired the same kind of curiosity in me that that led director Stephen Kessler to follow the singer/songwriter for years after believing he was dead once he dropped out of public consciousness during the late ‘80s and now we have both a definitive answer and an entertaining documentary as a result. In “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Williams explains his absence succinctly to a fan by saying, “I was druuuuuunk,” but as Kessler well knows that reply isn’t nearly satisfactory enough for a man who was once everywhere after transforming his success as a songwriter into a staple on Johnny Carson and other talk shows for his quick wit and boyish charm.
These days, Williams still has those qualities, but he has lost the drugs and alcohol that plagued him after penning classics such as “Rainbow Connection” and The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” But true to the one-day-at-a-time approach to recovering from addiction though he’s been long sober, he doesn’t serve as the easiest subject for Kessler, often tentatively agreeing to be filmed and more than willing to insinuate when the filmmaker is not welcome in his presence. Kessler, who previously directed, as he notes, the critically lambasted but commercially successful “Vegas Vacation” and then the commercial flop but critical hit “The Independent” aims to lighten the mood by turning the camera on himself, freely showing the push-pull relationship he and Williams develop as Williams gradually lets his guard down.
The film doesn’t dwell on Williams’ drug use, though it also doesn’t shy away from showing him in his worst days, instead opting to show Williams’ humble lifestyle of today, carrying his own suitcase to play small clubs in between his other responsibilities such as being a speaker at addiction recovery events. Other than his wife Mariana, who travels with him on the road, his family is only alluded to a few times and Kessler largely eschews the talking heads of people Williams has worked with in favor of simply presenting his legacy as interpreted by others throughout the score and clips of his most famous songs being sung by different artists from different time periods. Although that may sound superficial, Kessler really does draw Williams out, connecting to him as a fan, who in his words was attracted to the themes of “depression, loneliness and alienation” in the songwriter’s work from the age of 13, and knowing the vagaries of the Hollywood lifestyle himself, is able to capture the dignity in Williams’ second act.
However, “Paul Williams Still Alive” isn’t just a biography of Williams or a study of Kessler’s neuroses as he tries to capture him properly — or elude terrorist attacks during their trip to the Philippines. It’s also a nice reminder of an era where there really were entertainers that cut across mediums for the love of entertaining rather than for the purposes of expanding their brand. When Williams is asked why he appeared on so many talk shows, risking overexposure, he says, “I was good at it,” demonstrating the same drive that pushed him to go skydiving for a TV segment on the day after winning an Oscar for “A Star is Born.” It’s the type of showmanship that earned the devotion of fans like Kessler in the first place and it’s only natural that the director has made a film that will pass it along to new audiences. (As TIFF programmer Colin Geddes mentioned during the film's Q & A, Williams is doing his part by currently collaborating with "some French guys" also known as Daft Punk.)