Paul Williams wrote the songs that defined a decade. Even those who don’t think they know the man himself are familiar with his tunes, which were often made famous by other artists. He composed The Carpenters’ wedding staple “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.” He penned “An Old Fashioned Love Song” and “Out in the Country” for Three Dog Night, and “Somewhere Man” for The Monkees. He earned an Academy Award for Barbara Streisand’s torch ballad “Evergreen” from A Star is Born.
Williams was everywhere in the 1970s. The chunky, blonde and bespectacled 5’2” songwriter guest starred on all the big sitcoms of the day, including The Donnie and Marie Show, The Hardy Boys, and The Odd Couple. He was a regular on the game and talk show circuit, notching fifty appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Williams also enjoyed bit parts in movies like Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Smokey and The Bandit.
But the multitalented Williams disappeared in the early eighties, seemingly a victim of his own overexposure as much as the typical career-ending culprits of alcohol and drugs. To many he became just another celebrity casualty whose cherubic face was synonymous with a bygone era.
Director Stephen Kessler (National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation) was barely in his teens when Williams’ was at the top of his game. As a kid he was struck by Williams’ songs in the Clint Eastwood film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and the John Travolta drama The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. He was riveted during Williams’ many appearances on popular 70s programs like The Brady Bunch and Fantasy Island because this was the guy whose songs of loneliness and desperation hit on all the things a teenage boy like him cared about.
“He was nobody’s idea of a leading man, but he made it work for him,” recalls Kessler.
In the mid-2000s Kessler was delighted to learn, vis-à-vis Google and You Tube searches, that the short songwriter still has legions of fans out there just like him. He also discovered Williams isn’t dead.
The filmmaker gets the chance to follow Williams around for an informal, “then and now” styled video project after meeting his hero at a low key convention in Winnipeg for fans of the 1974 Brian DePalma film Phantom of the Paradise—which starred Williams. The resulting documentary, Paul Williams: Still Alive, reveals what the songwriter’s been up to the last few decades, and why he vanished in the first place.
“I was sure Paul Williams was a great subject for a film,” narrates Steve. “I just had to convince him of that.”
The partnership gets off to a rocky start. Williams, now sporting short brown hair, takes Kessler to task for asking about “really boring stuff” and is initially reluctant to discuss his childhood. But the resilient director eventually breaks through to his tight-lipped subject over squid dinner and gleans the details of William’s early days, which he surveys in an amusing parody/ homage to “those PBS documentaries.”
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, the diminutive Williams was sent to live with an aunt in California. The male hormones prescribed to accelerate his growth actually stunted it; he wound up playing young boys in sixties flicks like The Loved One and The Chase while in his mid-twenties. Inspired by old-school croners like Frank Sinatra, Williams entered talent shows, taught himself guitar, and wrote show tunes with Kenneth Ascher and Roger Nichols. He cranked out material for Elvis Presley, Helen Reddy, and David Bowie—but it was his work with The Carpenters (“Rainy Days and Mondays”) that thrust him into the spotlight.
Kessler juxtaposes modern-day sequences of Williams on tour stops in San Francisco and Las Vegas with archival footage from the singer’s film and TV career. We see Williams schmoozing with Mike Douglas and singing with The Muppets for television audiences. He’s shot by Angie Dickinson from Police Woman, interrogated by Mickey Blake’s Baretta, and given romantic advice by “Doc” Bernie Koppell on The Love Boat. He sings with The Muppets, skydives on Circus With the Stars, and gives a gracious speech at The Oscars.
Today, Williams wheels his own overnight bag to self-service lines at airports and drives himself to gigs in rent-a-cars. You get the uneasy feeling Kessler is baiting his subject, setting him up for kill shots about addiction, his willingness to play the fool for so long, and his self-imposed exile.
“There’s a letdown on the other side of getting something you’ve dreamed about your entire life,” Williams admits.
Still, the songwriter appears to enjoy himself on the road with wife Mariana and publicist Nancy, limiting his worries to travel plans and lunch menus. He picks up new threads at Jimmy Aus’s for Men in Beverly Hills, participates in a charity golf tournament with Michael Bolton, and is keynote speaker at the 2006 Fall Luncheon for The Council on Drugs and Alcohol in Houston.
Kessler has trouble respecting boundaries once admitted to Williams’ inner circle and nearly alienates Paul with his omnipresent camera, unbridled enthusiasm, and probing questions. The tension mounts when Kessler asks the singer why he married when he already had everything, and how he went from Oscar and Grammy glory to Gong Show judge in less than two years. Williams makes it clear he doesn’t “dig” Kessler’s insensitivity.
But the director has a breakthrough in, of all places, Manila—where Williams is greeted by a mob of Beatles / Justin Bieber proportions. The performer obliges every autograph seeker, indulges every photo opportunity, and personally thanks every hotel staffer remotely involved with his event—all despite the fact that his underwear and secret stock of Splenda were pilfered from his room earlier in the day. Meanwhile, paranoid Kessler refuses to eat and frets himself silly over a bus ride through the war-torn Mindanao jungle (“I kept one eye on the scenery and the other looking out for improvised roadside bombs.”). It’s here Williams finally opens up about his alcoholic father, his practical orphan-hood, and his own failings as a parent in the 80s and 90s. The watershed moment loosens up the director in kind, prompting Kessler to befriend some Filipino rotary clubbers and relax for a change (“It made me wonder what I was missing in all those other places they tell you not to go.”).
Kessler’s two-year journey culminates with “a sleepover” at Williams’ house, where the soft-spoken host agrees to review some old TV appearances Steve has selected for comment. Williams is mortified watching himself guest-host The Merv Griffin Show in a drug-fueled haze and asks to stop. He describes superstardom as “addicting” and—after twenty years of sobriety—is astounded he couldn’t recognize how arrogant, grandiose, and mean-spirited he was at the time.
“My wife now got the man my other wives thought they were getting,” Williams says.
It occurs to Kessler while studying Williams’ family photos that the tunesmith is happier now out of the spotlight. His 16-year stint as a substance abuse counselor means as much to him as music career. He still writes and performs, albeit a healthy detachment from the prickers and pitfalls of the industry. Williams was appointed President of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 2009 and is more concerned with the fortunes of tomorrow’s songwriters than trading on his own past. The bulk of his awards and mementos are kept at a self-storage facility, which we visit late in the film. Williams prefers looking forward, not back.
Williams is far less sentimental about his career than others in the business. One can’t blame him for not wanting to dwell on mistakes. Who would? Even Paul’s keyboard player (Chris Caswell) confronts Kessler about why he’d want to “go there.”
“The last two years of my life probably f#@k up the end of your movie,” jokes Williams near the conclusion. “And I love that!”
Still Alive is charming, funny and, at turns, quite moving documentary that distinguishes itself from other Behind-the-Music type profiles because its well-intentioned yet nostalgic director can’t help but get in on the action. Kessler’s invasive technique makes him appear as mean-spirited now as Williams once was, but we come to realize he’s just feeling his way through the process, too. He knows he’s acting like a stalker, and it is this give-and-take dichotomy between Steve and Paul that makes the film so compelling. It wouldn’t have been as interesting had Kessler removed himself from the equation. He’s self-conscious about butting in too much, yet behaves like a doting schoolgirl when he’s around Williams, whom he describes as his childhood “friend from the TV.” Most of us can identify with being on both the giving and receiving end of such admiration.
The film narrowly misses perfection because of Kessler’s failure to take viewers further inside Williams’ music. Paul sings a lot in Still Alive, but we only see him dabble on keyboards for a few seconds at the end. And although we learn “We’ve Only Just Begun” started off as for TV jingle for a bank, Williams’ other hits aren’t dissected. Kessler never truly gets to the heart of those lyrics he (we) loved.
The DVD boasts archive appearances by Dick Clark, Telly Savalas, Billy Joel, Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, Willie Nelson, Gabe “Mr. Kotter” Kaplan, and many more. Bonus features include outtakes of live concert performances.