By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Paul Williams boasts an interesting and compelling life story. Unfortunately, even by the end credits, his documentarian remains somehow unconvinced.
Director Stephen Kessler ("Vegas Vacation") thus delivers a hand-wringing, self-indulgent film that is often trying, dull and, like a rainy Monday, is likely to get you down.
The diminutive Williams was once a giant star. By the end of the '70s, he'd written huge hits — Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" (his biggest hit and Oscar winner, from "A Star Is Born"), even the theme song for "The Love Boat" — and was a fixture on television, guesting on everything from "The Tonight Show" to "Police Woman." By the '80s, though, he'd disappeared into deep struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
Like many fair-weather fans, Kessler assumed Williams was dead. The recent discovery of his error reignited a youthful admiration for Williams and his music, so Kessler began pestering his idol about telling his story on camera. For two and a half years he shadowed a clearly reluctant Williams, and the resulting footage was cobbled together for "Paul Williams Still Alive," opening Friday.
Despite being handed a timeless "Behind the Music" narrative arc — unlikely figure becomes huge star, huge star face-plants into addiction, has-been redeems self with indomitable spirit and a continuing career that's, hey, not digging ditches — Kessler early on admits his fan-boy insecurity about the modern marketability of his subject. Unable to see past his own adoration, though, Kessler decides instead to make the film about ... Kessler.
First-person documentary works if you're somewhat daring (Michael Moore) or even remotely likable (Morgan Spurlock). Kessler, however, shows himself to be timid, whiny and paranoid. The chat segments are uncomfortable because Kessler has no facility for interviewing. The daily-life segments are dull because Kessler is frequently shut out of the inner circle and left to twiddle his knobs. A series of gigs in the Philippines are a huge downer not because of what actually happens but because Kessler won't shut up about his own cultural paranoia regarding terrorism in the big bad jungle.
Thus, this film is about many things that never happen. Williams didn't die. Williams refuses to talk much about his past. Williams — despite numerous shameless attempts by Kessler to coerce him to do so — does not break down on camera and weep with shame over his former follies. (Other things that never happen: Williams' involvement with the Muppets is barely mentioned. "Phantom of the Paradise," ignored.)
In fact, it's Williams' defiance that ultimately end-runs around Kessler's meek machinations to illuminate his own story. "He always looks forward, he doesn't look back," Kessler finally realizes about his subject, two and a half years too late. Williams, meanwhile — ever calm, satisfied, radiantly secure — describes the happiness of his current existence and sobriety, then revels gleefully in Kessler's inability to churn it into a standard tell-all.
"The last few years have really f---ed up the end of your movie," he cackles, "and I love that!" There's at least that to love.
'PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE'
Rated PG-13, 87 minutes
Directed by Stephen Kessler
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.