'Paul Williams: Still Alive,' still singing
"Paul Williams: Still Alive," is a documentary directed by Stephen Kessler about a songwriter who "was everywhere" in the '70s, writes Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald, but who, for reasons this rather dull documentary explains, disappeared from the public eye. The film is playing at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) Center.
Seattle Times movie critic
'Paul Williams: Still Alive,' a documentary by Stephen Kessler. 84 minutes. Rated PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language. SIFF Film Center.
In the '70s, Paul Williams was everywhere. The diminutive songwriter ("Evergreen," "We've Only Just Begun," and many more) with the limp blonde shag and tinted aviator glasses was a permanent fixture on television; a regular on game shows like "The Gong Show" and "The Match Game" and a frequent pop-in on TV series such as "The Odd Couple," "Police Woman," "Baretta" and "The Love Boat." He was all over the talk shows, too, sometimes singing his songs in his slightly tinny voice, sometimes genially mocking his less-than-glamorous appearance. And then, suddenly, he was gone.
Director Stephen Kessler was once a TV-obsessed '70s kid, drawn to Williams' friendly persona; he seemed to Kessler less a star than a teddy bear in a green-velvet three-piece suit. The title and inspiration for his film, "Paul Williams: Still Alive" came from Kessler's recent discovery that the star he'd assumed to have died long ago — why else would he have disappeared? — was indeed alive and well, and still singing. Kessler sought out his former idol, now somewhat less blond and asked to make a film about him.
The resulting documentary, at once endearing and dull, does indeed tell us about Williams, but it also tells us perhaps too much about Kessler. The filmmaker keeps inserting himself into the story: tagging along on Williams' concert tour to the Philippines, riding to Las Vegas with Williams and his wife, filming dull lunchtime conversations during which we learn, for example, that both Williams and Kessler really, really like squid. Toward the end of the documentary, Kessler admits something we've already figured out: The process has dragged on so long simply because Kessler doesn't want to stop hanging out with Williams.
Though Williams expresses some good-natured frustration with the filming process, he readily shares some stories from his life, most notably, the addiction that led to his disappearance from the public eye decades ago, and his proud 20-year sobriety. The songs are given their due, particularly "The Rainbow Connection," a sweet tune (originally sung by Kermit the Frog) that has a magical ability to make me tear up every time.
Patient folk who remember Williams from his heyday will enjoy not only the trip down memory lane, but also the constant evidence that Williams is a hell of a good sport. It's touching to see the fans who gather for Williams' current concerts, who tell Kessler's camera why they're still with him. Says one woman simply, "He writes songs about what I feel."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org