Paul Williams Still Alive

We’ve only just begun. Singer and songwriter Paul Williams (right) poses with the Unpaid Film Critic after a screening of “Paul Williams Still Alive.”  Photo by Gary Joseph

Until I saw director Stephen Kessler’s insightful and funny new documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Williams, the Oscar and Grammy winning song writer and singer had not been on my radar for a good thirty years.  As a result, I was grateful for the documentary’s title, which assured me that Mr. Williams is, in fact, still with us.

Williams and Kessler made an appearance at the Angelika Film Center last Friday, following the film’s 7:30 showing.   Williams did not disappoint, neither as a documentary subject, nor as a warm, open, modest and gracious human being.

Williams wrote some of the biggest pop songs of the 1970s.  His work was recorded by everyone from “Three Dog Night” to the “Muppets.”  However, as Williams points out, for him, the idea of being different and special was addicting.  He just loved the attention, the pursuit of which took him from the sublime to the ridiculous: From Oscar and Grammy winner to “The Gong Show,” “The Brady Bunch Variety Show,” and, the day after winning his Oscar (for the song “Evergreen” from the 1976 movie “A Star is Born”), to an appearance on TV’s “Circus of the Stars,” in which he parachuted from an airplane.

By the 1980s Williams had been swallowed up by drugs and alcohol, something which actually started during the height of his popularity.  At his lowest ebb Williams was reduced to being interviewed by a kid on YouTube and by a reporter from cable channel 99.

What makes “Paul Williams Still Alive” so unique are a number of things.  First of all there are the expected archival TV clips: “The Muppet Show,” “The Tonight Show” (50 appearances during the Johnny Carson years), playing a bad guy gunned down by Angie Dickinson on “Police Woman,” and many other TV appearances.

What makes the documentary special is that it is a personal story not only of Williams, but of filmmaker Stephen Kessler.  Kessler had the difficult job of following Williams, attempting to capture candid moments from a subject who did not always want to be on camera, while also attempting to develop a bond with his subject.  This includes following Williams to performance venues in the Philippines, where he is still quite popular.  As Kessler points out, “In the Philippines Williams was not some forgotten pop star.  He was Justin Bieber.”  The adventure included having to be on a tour bus driving through a jungle known to be populated by terrorists.

Then there is Williams himself who, upon viewing one of his old TV appearances, candidly admits to “not having a sense of how arrogant and shallow an image I was presenting” during the height of his popularity.  Today Williams has 20 years of sobriety and has been a drug rehabilitation counselor.  Williams says that now, in recovery, he has more in his life than ever before.

Since this was the documentary’s opening weekend Kessler and Williams encouraged the audience to spread the word about the film.  Perhaps lyricist Williams put the perfect capper on the evening when he said, “Tell your friends that Paul Williams is still alive and very grateful.”

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on June 11, 2012, in New and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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