Saturday, June 9, 2012

Sound Unseen 2012: Review of PAUL WILLIAMS: STILL ALIVE (2012)

- Not Rated but contains the occasional F-word.
- Starring Paul Williams, Stephen Kessler
- Written & Directed by Stephen Kessler
- Running time: 1hr 27min.

The opening of this documentary has filmmaker Stephen Kessler explaining why he loves Paul Williams, and there I was watching this, on the exact same page as Kessler.  Who is Paul Williams you ask?  Okay, I don't want to know you!!!  I LOVE Paul Williams.  He has been a part of my film geek life since I can remember.  He was a singer/songwriter, actor and television personality who gained most of his notoriety in he 70's.  I know him firstly from his work with Jim Henson.  He wrote all the songs for THE MUPPET MOVIE and MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL.  I mean, for God's sake, he wrote The Rainbow Connection (and more recently performed the song on YO GABBA GABBA)!!!   He also wrote all the songs for Brian DePalma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and Alan Parker's BUGSY MALONE.  I have all those soundtracks and have loved those songs for many years, as they definitely have been a major influence on my life. So this documentary had me in it's opening moments as Kessler gushed the way I kind of did just now.

But this isn't really a fluff piece on Williams.  It's deeper and more interesting than that.  Instead of making a PBS-type Documentary (Kessler's words, not mine), the filmmaker instead tries something a bit different.  After finding out that Paul was still alive (he thought he was dead), he tracks him down at one of his concerts.  Kessler approaches Paul and convinces him to make a Doc about him.  So now armed with a film crew, Kessler gets to follow his idol around on his tours.  At first, Williams is stand off-ish.  He constantly tells the filmmaker to shut the cameras off, and even walks away making Kessler feel like he's paparazzi.  But after bonding over a squid entree, Williams begins to warm up.

Though there is some great insight on his songwriting and his addiction to fame, the main focus of the movie ends up being on the love/hate relationship Williams has with Kessler.  That was something I wasn't expecting.  Williams obviously doesn't like being filmed in every day life, so it's his suggestion that Kessler join him in front of the camera.  This approach makes him feel more at ease, though they still have problems during the shoot.  You see, the songwriter is the type of person who doesn't dwell on the past, as he's always moving forward.  Kessler wants to know more about his struggle with alcoholism and addiction to drugs, but that's when Williams gets defensive about his life and puts up a fight. 

After just 87 minutes, I felt like I got to know Paul Williams.  He's a very private person, but is loyal once you get on his good side.  The friendship between Kessler and Williams is pretty engaging.  I also got to find out some interesting facts about the celebrity too.  I had no idea that he appeared on the Johnny Carson show 52 times!  Holy Cow!  And he also appeared on several television shows like POLICE WOMAN, THE ODD COUPLE, BARETTA, LOVE BOAT and of course, THE MUPPET SHOW.  He won many Grammy's and even got an Academy Award for co-writing a song with Barbara Streisand.  He was all over the place and then he just disappeared.  It's interesting hearing about his life and what DID happen to him when he finally opens up.  In one of the most memorable moments of the film, Kessler shows Williams an episode of the Merv Griffin show that Williams hosted in the 80's, wacked out on drugs.  The look on the songwriter's face is heartbreaking.  This film doesn't hold anything back.  It's candid and honest. 

Being a fan, I found myself riveted by this movie.  But I don't think you have to be a fan or even know who Paul is to enjoy it.  It's an interesting look at celebrities and the filmmakers that try to document them.  It's a great look at a relationship between a fan who wants to know everything about his favorite celebrity, and the celebrity who doesn't want to be exposed.  I was fully engaged and I thinks many other viewers would be too.

***1/2 (out of ****)

(This will be playing at the Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis on Wednesday, June 13th at 7pm.  Tickets are 8 dollars)

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