I'm sure Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams has a few young fans scattered here and there, but if you're a person of a certain age, like me, he's an icon. Not "kind of an icon" or "sort of an icon," but an icon. Full stop. And the reason is simple: he ruled the 1970s. His songs, like the Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "We've Only Just Begun" were all over the radio, and every time you turned on the TV, there he was: guesting on Baretta, Police Woman, and The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson was such a fan he had Williams on 50 times.
Kessler and his kids introduce the film
But then, as the '70s gave way to the '80s, the ubiquitous entertainer's drug use got the best of him, and he slowly but surely disappeared. Director Stephen Kessler, who appears to be around my age, decided to find out whatever happened to his childhood hero (as the title indicates, he thought Williams had died). That inquiry led to the documentary Paul Williams Still Alive, which premiered at the Egyptian on Friday as part of SIFF's Face the Music series.
I was interested in the film from the start, but once I found out that Williams would be attending both screenings, it became a can't-miss event, and it was definitely worth my while, both for the documentary and for the revealing Q&A.
During the brisk, 87-minute movie, Kessler concentrates on the '70s and the present, skipping over the '80s and the '90s. It's a wise move, since most addiction stories play out in a similar manner. As it is, we get enough footage of Williams rubbing his nose during a variety of talk-show appearances—Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, etc.—to get the point: he had a problem with cocaine.
Stephen turns into a blur in Paul's presence
In the Q&A, Williams describes the cynical, self-pitying person he became as a "prick." Sober now for 20 years, he's back on the road with his band. During the doc, Kessler travels with him to engagements in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Winnipeg, and the Philippines. If he's no longer at the top of his game—his singing voice has taken a few hits—nor is he at the bottom. Most recently, he's been working on a Happy Days musical and a top-secret project with Daft Punk.
And Kessler doesn't skimp on his adventures in movieland, like the compositions he wrote for A Star Is Born, Ishtar, and The Muppet Movie. If he won the Oscar for the former, he admits that "The Rainbow Connection" ranks among his favorite self-penned creations—and I'm right there with him. While he describes Kermit as an "everyfrog," much like Jimmy Stewart's everyman in all those Frank Capra classics, he proclaimed a special fondness for Gonzo. He also gave a shout-out to the late William Finley, his co-star in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (and a regular presence in De Palma's output from the '60s through the '00s).
I should note that Kessler inserts himself into most of the modern-day material, which can be problematic when a filmmaker steals the spotlight from his star, but in this case it works, because Kessler, a veteran commercial director, makes a few rookie mistakes—like interrupting his subject a time or two—and he allows Williams to upbraid him on camera. In every case, Williams is right, so they start out as antagonists, and end up as friends. Or at least friendly collaborators. It's actually kind of sweet, though I suspect some viewers may find Kessler's outspoken Queens persona a little boorish (I didn't, but then, I've got New York roots, too).
After the screening, Williams joined Sean Nelson at the Sorrento Hotel for a set of cover songs, a fit that makes perfect sense when you consider how much the '70s-era Williams sounded, at times, like Harry Nilsson, another favored Nelson composer. Not too surprisingly, Williams also appears in John Scheinfeld's fine profile, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)
Paul Williams Still Alive played the Uptown the next day with Kessler and Williams in attendance. If you missed out, it opens at SIFF Film Center on July 13.