SXSW 2012 Review: Paul Williams Still Alive

Director Stephen Kessler explores celebrity and addiction in the life of pop-culture icon, Paul Williams
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“We usually save this surprise for after the movie”, explained director Stephen Kessler. Kessler, who was on stage at the Paramount Theatre as part of Austin’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival “But airplane schedules and the crowds mean we have to do this now. Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Williams.”

Paul WilliamsWilliams joined Kessler to discuss his film Paul Williams Still Alive. In the seventies, Paul Williams wrote hits like “We’ve Only Just Begun,” "Evergreen," and “Rainbow Connection." He starred in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and on Johnny Carson’s couch and then, he vanished from the pop-culture spotlight. Williams struck a chord with many, including director Stephen Kessler--who found him.

“This movie started out as a stalker film,” Williams said, “but ended up as The Steve and Paulie Show.”

Initially, Williams was not interested in having a biography made of his life. Kessler found out that Williams was appearing in Canada and began talking to his fans and following the performer around. Eventually, William warmed to his stalker and invited him along on tours that included a trip to the ballad-obsessed Philippines where Williams is still a superstar.

But why was it a surprise that Paul Williams is alive? Like many celebrities of the era, Williams became immersed in alcohol and drugs. “I remember being in Jamaica,” Williams said. “I hadn’t had a drink in about six weeks so I was feeling pretty good about myself. I decided one rum and coke couldn’t hurt. Twelve hours later I found myself at Bob Marley’s grave explaining reggae to a bunch of black people I’d never met before.”

Paul Williams and the MuppetsThe film includes dozens of flashbacks into the TV and films of the era. While most of them are (if you’re old enough to remember them, like me) great fun, eventually they begin to show Williams deterioration. To his credit, after his rehabilitation, Williams became a substance-abuse counselor. He returned to performing about five years ago.

One of the issues that has been raised about the current crop of documentaries making the festival circuit is the role of the filmmaker. Should the filmmaker be anonymous in the world of the film? Does the act of observing and recording change the reality the filmmaker is trying to capture? Early in the filming process of Paul Williams Still Alive, Williams addresses Kessler and asks, “Do you want me to look at the camera, ignore it, or do that bullshit where I pretend I don’t know it’s there?” The question which has been raised is not only the effect of the camera, but the filmmaker himself. Although the film is about Williams, Kessler plays a large role in it.

Discussing this after the film, Kessler suggests that to try and pretend that you are not there is, at a minimum, misleading. Once you start to pretend, you risk sinking to the level of reality TV.

I asked Kessler about the editing and production process. How did he get all that footage taken over a couple of years into a coherent film?

Kessler said that the footage actually sat on the shelf for two years because he ran out of money for the project. He then heard that Williams had been elected president of ASCAP and knew that he needed to act. A friend of his provided the funding and he contacted Williams to film the final ASCAP-related scenes. Then he just locked himself away till it was done.

Kessler had some concerns about the finished product, especially about the portrayal of Williams’ wife, which appeared negative in one scene. He gave Williams the tape and told him he had the final cut. Williams watched it and showed it to his wife. She was okay with it. Williams explained, “My wife is a writer. She understands the need to tell the truth.”

Paul Williams Still Alive is a trip down memory lane for some of us, and, for the non-gray haired set, explores the nature of celebrity, the creative process, and the ability of the human spirit to recover from the damage it sometime inflicts upon itself. 

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