Singer/songwriter Paul Williams, as Stephen Kessler’s brilliant (and occasionally heartbreaking) new documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive” teaches us, is indeed, still very much alive. The versatile entertainer has had a profound impact on popular culture, writing songs for The Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” as the documentary points out, originated from a television jingle), Helen Reddy, and Elvis Presley. Williams made nearly constant appearances on 1970s television, not only as a performer and guest on countless talk shows but also in episodic dramas like “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Love Boat.” He wrote “Rainbow Connection” for “The Muppet Movie,” won an Oscar for “Evergreen” from the Streisand/Kristofferson “A Star Is Born,” and wrote the songs, score, and co-starred in Brian De Palma’s cult classic “Phantom of the Paradise.” We sat down with Williams and Kessler to discuss making the film, how it became a buddy movie between the two of them, the Muppets, and Williams’ involvement in the new Daft Punk record.
We wondered what the two men thought the documentary would turn out to be at the beginning of the process, versus what it ended up being upon completion, since part of the fun of watching the film is the kind of evolutionary twists and turns it takes. (In a way, “Paul Williams: Still Alive” is very much a companion piece to this summer’s other buzzy, totally brilliant music doc “Searching for Sugar Man.”) Williams thought it would go down a familiar track.
“I thought, ‘This guy would be thrilled if he saw me living in a trailer behind a junkyard playing at the Red Lion with an organist and a sock puppet of Kermit that I was singing ‘Rainbow Connection’ to,’” Williams said wryly. “I thought he wanted to make one of those ‘where are they now’ drug-addled tragedies of fame gone sour. And I had no interest in that. I said from the beginning that I don’t think there’s anything more pathetic than some little old man saying, ‘Please sir can I have another cup of fame?’ It’s not who I am. The idea of poking the bear again wasn’t something that I didn’t want to do.” Williams now (rightfully) describes the film as: “a road movie meets ‘Celebrity Rehab.’”
Kessler initially had a very different approach to the subject matter, as well, with a kind of “VH1 Storytellers” framework in place. “What I thought originally was that since Paul is such a great singer/songwriter and a lot of his songs have these lush seventies arrangements, and I would have loved to have Paul record his songs with stripped down vocals and maybe make a movie that’s following Paul around through airports and buying toothpaste,” Kessler explained. “But as I started shooting the movie and hanging out with him and I started to see that this guy who I started hanging out with was way more interesting than the guy who I loved as a kid.”
What’s so fascinating about the doc is that it becomes a kind of buddy movie, as Kessler and his incessant crew end up warming Williams’ heart, and he lets them him in on some very personal moments and stories (and, hilariously, inviting Kesller to spend the night at his house, which he greets with the enthusiasm of a sleepover-bound child). Williams put it beautifully when he told us, “I think what’s nice about the movie is that the journey of the filmmaker and the subject kind of became the movie, and what usually winds up on the cutting room floor, became the heart of the movie.” And, indeed, Kessler tried to do a version of the film where he omitted himself. “I edited a version of the movie with a long hunk of it – about an hour – with me not in [it],” Kessler. “It wasn’t getting through who Paul was [or] how Paul acted towards me and how that changed.”