Movie Reviews
3:03 pm
Thu June 7, 2012

Paul Williams is 'Still Alive,' And Taking Every Gig

A diminutive giant of the 1970s, Paul Williams composed some of the decade's sweetest and most enduring songs — including The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," Helen Reddy's "You and Me Against the World," Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," and "Rainbow Connection" for The Muppet Movie.

He was also a professional celebrity, popping up on everything from The Tonight Show — he was a favorite of Johnny Carson's — to one-off turns on shows like The Love Boat and Police Woman to frequent appearances among the gallery of wits on Hollywood Squares and Match Game.

Part of Williams' omnipresence on television was a chronic inability to say no. In one of the most telling moments in Paul Williams Still Alive, a deeply flawed tribute to a remarkable figure, Williams appears onstage with Barbara Streisand to collect the Oscar for "Evergreen," the love theme from A Star is Born. From this, the greatest triumph of his professional career, we cut to Williams shortly afterward, jumping out of an airplane for Circus of the Stars. Until drug and alcohol abuse derailed his career, the kid always stayed in the picture.

Williams' indulgence for even the most dubious projects may explain his decision to allow Stephen Kessler, the director of Paul Williams Still Alive, to follow him around and pester him relentlessly. Kessler doesn't seem convinced that his theoretical audience is interested in Williams — or aware that he has not in fact died, as an on-screen Wikipedia search confirms — so he employs the Michael Moore tactic of putting himself on camera and making his rediscovery of a childhood idol the true subject of the movie. Kessler's presence is so grating at times that has the unintended effect of making Williams seem all the more heroic for pushing back.

Producing his first documentary after a couple of features (including the little-love third sequel Vegas Vacation) and commercial work, Kessler confesses to having trouble finding the right way to approach a profile on Williams. At one point, he even does a funny mock-Ken Burns collage of old-timey photos to illustrate the problem, before settling back into the story of his affection for Williams as a child and his attempts to ingratiate himself to the still-touring singer/songwriter. It turns out that Williams, who's every bit as soulful and hilariously self-deprecating now as he was back then, has an incredible story to tell. The trouble is, Kessler doesn't seem that confident Williams' story will stand up on its own.

Whenever Paul Williams Still Alive devotes itself to its ostensible subject, it's propulsive and often moving. Drawing from a wealth of archival footage from TV and movies — as well as home-video clips Williams generously donated to the cause — Kessler puts together some snappy montage sequences that show Williams at the height of his powers, when he could make Carson double over with laughter one night and hobnob with Frank Sinatra the next.

And when Williams sits down for an interview, he opens up about his compulsive need to feel "special" and the dark period of addiction from which he emerged sober in 1990. His oft-testy relationship with Kessler does yield a few revealing moments, too, about his unwillingness to wallow too much in past mistakes.

But Kessler doesn't know where to draw the line. In one sequence, he follows Williams to an appearance in the Philippines that includes a six-hour bus ride through the jungle, because air travel would be too expensive. It's fascinating enough that Williams would agree to do a gig in such a far-flung locale, and happily abide the hassles of flying halfway around the world, then busing six hours to get there. Yet Kessler tries to goose up the drama by informing us (and Williams) that al-Qaida members roam freely in that very same jungle and the U.S. government has advised travel restrictions. Kessler doesn't believe audiences will engage with Williams' persistence in the face of diminished fame. So he raises the terror alert level to orange.

Needless to say, the title of the movie still applies.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.