Even those of us who loved the Paul Williams songs of the 1970s–like “Rainy Days and Mondays” (made famous by the Carpenters) or “Evergreen” (for which he won the Oscar with Barbra Streisand) — didn’t know that the popular artist was still alive. But a premiere screening of Stephen Kessler’s terrific new documentary — hosted by The Creative Coalition at HBO in Manhattan on Monday evening — made it clear that the diminutive songwriter is indeed vital and refreshingly devoid of self-pity.
Paul Williams: Still Alive, which opens Friday, is one demonstration of his feistiness; the other is Williams himself, who spoke candidly after the screening about his recovery as well as his reluctance to be the subject of a documentary. But Kessler’s persistence paid off, leading to a film that Williams termed a cross between a Hope-Crosby road movie and celebrity rehab.
Williams was ubiquitous in the 1970s. He started out as an actor, looking like a child even when he was in his early 20s: the documentary includes clips from The Chase (’66), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (’73), and Smokey and the Bandit (’77). His first hit song was “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded in 1970 by the Carpenters. (He confesses in the film that he wrote the song for a bank commercial.) Composing and acting intersected when he scored and starred in Brian De Palma’s rock opera, Phantom of the Paradise (’74).
He was hugely popular on TV, including 50 appearances on The Tonight Show (shots of Johnny Carson cracking up at Williams’ raunchy remarks provide a nostalgic kick) and guest gigs on The Odd Couple, Baretta, and The Love Boat (for which he wrote the theme’s lyrics). A fixture at the Oscars as well as the Grammys, he composed and performed instant classics such as “The Rainbow Connection” for The Muppet Movie (’79). But drugs and alcohol fueled his disappearance from the spotlight.
Enter Stephen Kessler, whose wonderfully self-deprecating voice-over narration acknowledges his “stalker” status. A fan of Williams since childhood, he understands that the great songs of his idol are about “depression, loneliness and alienation,” and convinces Williams to let him film for a day. This grows into two years, as Kessler follows the singer from Winnipeg, Ontario — where he has a cult following — to Las Vegas (no cult there), and the jungle of the Philippine Islands, where he is still a star.
The question of what kind of documentary to make is built into Paul Williams: Still Alive. Kessler toys with a PBS/Ken Burns-style presentation, but opts for a more personal approach that traces the budding friendship between chronicler and subject. It culminates in a riveting scene of the director showing Williams footage of his hosting The Merv Griffin Show at a time when drugs were visibly and painfully at play behind his pink glasses. The older Williams can’t stand the “smug little grin” and calls his earlier incarnation “shallow, arrogant, ruthless.”
We learn at the end that he has been sober for 20 years, and was elected president of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). During the interview after the screening — moderated by Creative Coalition president Robin Bronk — Williams acknowledged his two most frequent collaborators, Kenneth Ascher (who was in the audience) and Roger Nichols. He said his priorities are now recovery and songwriters’ rights. (He mentioned how he proud he was that his daughter recently graduated without debt because he was able to pay for her university studies from royalties.)
Williams confessed that he initially didn’t answer Kessler’s e-mailed overture but didn’t delete it either, keeping the query in his “new mail” for nine months before replying. “I didn’t want to poke the bear,” he recalled wryly. Now he is happy that they made a film that is also about their evolving friendship: “What usually ends up on the editing room floor is the heart of the movie.”
The film’s last scene is footage of him sky-diving decades ago — an image that initially seems exhilarating. But (to borrow a phrase from Milan Kundera) it also suggests the unbearable lightness of being for someone who could not feel anchored in his well-deserved success. It therefore seemed appropriate that when he was asked what is his favorite song, Williams replied, “Someone To Watch Over Me”: now comfortable in his own skin and firmly grounded, he looked up as if the lyrics were true about his own life.
Annette Insdorf, Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, is the author of PHILIP KAUFMAN.