DVD Review: Paul Williams Still Alive

It would seem that filmmaker Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation) and I have a lot in common. We both look back fondly upon a fixture of our childhood years: Paul Williams. The quirky and diminutive songwriter / actor / personality was absolutely everywhere in the 1970s. In addition to penning some of the era’s most durable pop songs (“We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for The Carpenters, “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song” for Three Dog Night, “Evergreen” for Barbra Streisand‘s A Star is Born, “Rainbow Connection” for The Muppet Movie and man others), Williams was an ubiquitous presence on the TV sets of young Stephen and Bill (and countless others).

Williams appeared on Johnny Carson‘s The Tonight Show more than fifty(!) times, co-hosted Mike Douglas‘ show, appeared on pop culture gems like Hollywood Squares and Circus of the Stars, and – never forget this one – acted in one of the Planet of the Apes sequels. He’s won Grammy and Oscar awards, and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the cult film Phantom of the Paradise. In those days, he was everywhere, I tell ya.

Despite being (as Kessler admits) “nobody’s idea of a leading man,” Williams earned his notoriety, always entertaining. And while he’s never been a world-beating vocalist, neither is that guy from Hibbing MN, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt his career too badly.

Echoing the approach used in Searching for Sugarman, Kessler’s film Paul Williams: Still Alive finds the director setting out on a whatever-happened-to mission. What he finds, he presents in a much more personal manner, narrating the film himself. Even if you don’t know what happened to Williams – why he went from being everywhere to all but disappearing from public view – you can pretty well guess. He spent quite a few years in the wilderness, as it were, but (as you could also probably guess) these days things are pretty good for him, and he’s come through it all with his humor and muse largely intact.

The low-budget Paul Williams: Still Alive doesn’t pull many punches, and it’s as much the chasing-its-own-tail story of making the film as it is a chronicle of Williams’ rise, fall and rise, but Kessler’s heartfelt emotional attachment to his subject (and his subject’s creative body of work) means that the film never takes a turn toward cheesy, clichéd VH1: Behind the Music territory.

A documentary crafted in a highly personal style, Paul Williams: Still Alive is an absolute delight. If you grew up in the 70s and liked pop at all, you’ll enjoy an hour and a half spent with this film. I’m not the most sentimental guy around, but I was in tears of fond remembrance a mere two minutes into this DVD. Highly, highly recommended.

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