Paul Williams' original song "Still Alive" from Stephen Kessler's documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive" will touch any artist, especially someone past their prime. The movie and the song address Williams' past glories, which are gone, and the fantasy of chasing your dreams vs. the reality of living with day-to-day happiness. In his case, the diminutive songwriter/performer enjoyed quite a run in the pop culture firmament. His songs have earned five Oscar nominations and this latest could well earn another.
Listen to the song here or via this direct link. (The lyrics and trailer are posted below.)
Like Kessler, I grew up with the singer-songwriter, who was ubiquitous on the 70s awards and talk show circuit. This is the guy who wrote Karen Carpenter's "We"ve Only Just Begun," Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection" and Barbra Streisand's Oscar-winning "Evergreen," among many other songs. He also starred in Brian De Palma's "Phantom of the Paradise" and Tony Richardson's "The Loved One."
Kessler, who has had his own ups and downs as a feature and documentary filmmaker, documents how trying it was for him and Williams to come to some kind of comfort over five years of digging into the songwriter's life and rebirth--he's celebrating 22 years of recovery this year.
This year the songwriter's been working with Daft Punk on an album and as president of ASCAP, went to Washington to testify for the Senate about Russian music rights. "We went from stalker to family," said Williams of the filmmaker at a SXSW screening. "It's so emotional." He was grateful that his two grown children could see the film, "awards, warts and all... I'm old enough to be not out, part of me gets back in again."
"It wasn't my intention to make a film I was in," Kessler said. "It's an honest film." Only at the end of the process when he did a rough cut did he realize that he needed a comprehensive interview; threads of that four-and-a-half-hour conversation make the picture--as well as the new Williams song.
Here are some early reviews:
THR: "Paul Williams Still Alive represents a remarkable achievement in a documentary. The case under scrutiny is something like a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the only difference being that the two didn’t simultaneously inhabit the same body nor did this Hyde do harm to anyone but himself — and loved ones. The downward trajectory of pop-culture stars or athletes is all too familiar but in this instance the opposite occurs: Once the self-abusing star recovers his sanity and sobriety, he is clearly a much better, more intelligent and focused human being."
HitFix: "The film is very funny, but never at the expense of its subject, and never at the expense of the moment. It's just that Williams still has a lovely, sharp sense of humor, and Kessler is able to acknowledge the absurdity of his own discovery process on the film. What could have easily been a dry recitation of a public history or a fawning love letter to an idol avoids all of the easy pitfalls to discover a stirring and sweet story of survival and the way art can connect and affect us even decades after its creation."
Collider: "...unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen,..Kessler’s film ends up being a far more revealing profile than ever could have possible in a conventional doc. The final product is a rambling, awkward, funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately a very genuine portrayal of a fascinating figure."
Variety: "There's a fascinating dynamic at play throughout 'Still Alive,' as Williams -- sometimes politely, sometimes sternly -- repeatedly refuses to fulfill Kessler's expectations, and progressively prods the filmmaker into making a movie far different than the one he set out to make,..As Kessler himself observes, there's a tension generated throughout 'Paul Williams Still Alive' by opposite points of view: While the director is looking back at a life to make a documentary, Williams -- who's still living that life -- is looking forward. But the combination of those viewpoints makes for an engrossing and satisfying pic, one that can be enjoyed even by people who have never before heard of its subject."