Review: Paul Williams: Still Alive (TIFF 2011)
PLOT: In the seventies, there were few bigger stars than Paul Williams. Standing a diminutive 5’2, Williams, famous for having written a slew of hit songs for The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Kris Kristofferson, and Barbara Streisand (winning an Oscar for his track off A STAR IS BORN), was a popular guest on The Tonight Show, and The Muppet Show (for which he wrote ‘The Rainbow Connection’). He even penned the theme song for THE LOVE BOAT. But, after the mid-eighties, Williams disappeared, and this documentary follows director Stephen Kessler as he tracks down his childhood idol.
REVIEW: Paul Williams is a fascinating guy. Nowadays, he’s mostly forgotten, but in his time he was megastar. Just put the name Paul Williams in YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of clips of him on ‘The Tonight Show’ opposite Johnny Carson, with him even dressed up as his character from BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES in one. There’s also a ton of clips from him on ‘The Muppets’, ‘The Brady Bunch Variety Hour’ (yes, such a thing did exist) and more.
Particularly hip film fans will also remember Williams from Brian De Palma’s great PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, where he memorably portrayed the Faustian Swan. It’s the enduring legacy of that film, which oddly spawned a massive cult following in Winnipeg, Canada of all places, that leads Kessler to tracking down his idol, when Williams agrees to play a concert at Phantompalooza, a yearly celebration of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE’s enduring popularity in that province.
Turns out, Williams is alive and well, with him till touring in small-scale shows in casinos, hotels, and particularly dangerous places like the Philippines’, where the terrified Kessler follows him in one memorable chunk of the film. A friendly, affable guy, Williams invites Kessler to hang out with him for a few months (which eventually becomes a full two years) and over time, the two become good friends.
Poignantly, we learn that Williams, at the peak of his popularity, became a hardcore drug addict, and alcoholic, now twenty-five years sober, who’s spent much of his time working as a drug councilor, and trying to help others escape the hell of addiction. Well-aware of his status as a “has-been”, Williams nonetheless embraces his new life, initially refusing to look back at his career until goaded by Kessler. Older, and much wiser, there’s a memorable scene where Williams watches a coked-out version of himself host a TV show in the mid-eighties, bragging about cheating on his wife of the time. Williams is only able to watch a few minutes before breaking down into tears of self-loathing at his former, drugged-out self.
Much chastened by time, Williams is an easy guy to like, which is key to this documentary being as effective as it is. Totally open about his former drug addiction, and candid about his own failings as a husband and father, Williams has done a lot of good since coming back from the edge, and of all the docs to play at TIFF, I doubt there were any that tug at the heartstrings as much as this one. I suppose many might wonder why we should sympathize with a guy who blew his fame on drugs, but the message here is that, in coming back from the peak and never attempting to recapture his former glory, Williams, nearing seventy, is happier than he’s ever been, and a better man for it. It’s a tremendous tale of redemption and one of the best films of the fest.
|Extra Tidbit:||I always loved Williams' cameo in THE RULES OF ATTRACTION: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMLK0lui50Y|