Starring Paul Williams
Directed by Stephen Kessler
Like Searching for Sugar Man, Paul Williams Still Alive starts out with a fan’s recollection of an idol from his childhood, the legendary Paul Williams, and a conviction that, because of how abruptly Williams disappeared, he must have died. When he finds out that isn’t true, he sets out to meet his hero. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. This film isn’t about mystery, discovery, and wonder. It is about obsession and entitlement, about fame and redemption. As documentaries go, it is awkward, self-conscious, and adversarial in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable to watch. And through that tension, it achieves a kind of greatness, and throws genuine light on the humanity of its two subjects. I say two subjects because this isn’t just a “where are they now” documentary about Paul Williams; it’s also a revealing portrait of a fanboy who wants to be his idol’s friend so badly that he can’t help but make himself a part of the story.
This isn’t a music documentary. This isn’t The Fearless Freaks or Be Here to Love Me, exploring the growth of Williams as a musician, the history behind his songs, his struggles with fame, the psychology of an artist. Williams fans will be happy with the archival footage of classic performances, TV appearances, and even some strange and sweet home movies peppered through the story, but this isn’t a portrait of him as a musician. It isn’t really about the music at all. It’s about the man, and what he means to Stephen Kessler.
Steve very much wants to be a part of his hero’s life, so his documentarian’s distance is compromised right from the start. Steve isn’t shy about showing us that, either, in his false starts, the way he stutters and struggles with his questions, or interrupts Williams’s personal recollections to completely change the subject. It’s not that he isn’t interested in what he has to say, necessarily, he’s just much more interested in being there, interacting with Paul. It’s not long before Williams makes what might be called a fateful editorial decision to pull Steve in front of the camera, because as he put it, he can either play to the camera or pretend it’s not there, and Steve’s not letting him do either. We never forget the camera in this film, and neither do the subjects, and that’s part of why it’s so awkward. Often it’s obvious that Williams and everyone around him – his agent, his wife, his band – are uncomfortable with having Steve around. Steve films awkward silences, uncomfortable glances, and multiple requests to put his camera down or turn it off, and he puts all of it in the movie. In one memorable scene, Williams, suffering from laryngitis, asks the house to dim the lights during his performance so that Steve can’t film him. Steve’s response: night vision. This closely follows Steve standing in the hall outside Paul’s dressing room, filming the door while he rehearses. That’s his self-portrait: awkward and obsessed, unable to help himself, unable to turn the camera off when Williams asks him to, because he’s afraid to give up the one excuse he has to be with the man he idolizes.
Kessler loved Paul Williams as a kid, and after his idol left the spotlight, he found himself fixated on a question: what happened to Paul Williams? The facts are easy enough to come by: after years of drug abuse that cost him his career and two marriages, Williams became clean, and has been sober for 17 years by the time Steve catches up with him. Somehow, though, that answer isn’t enough. Steve wants to know not just how one of the biggest stars of the 70s finds himself playing lounge rooms in Vegas and shows in the Philippines, but how he could be satisfied with that fall from grace. He keeps returning to this piece of his idol’s history, as if trying to bridge the missing time in their relationship. It’s obvious to anyone that this line of questioning is extremely unwelcome, and common sense says it isn’t wise or polite to ask an addict to relive the worst parts of his life and his addiction, but Steve tries it anyway. The climax of the film is some truly uncomfortable filmmaking, and a perfectly revealing moment, although probably not exactly of what Steve wanted. That moment, though reveals the strength at the core of Paul Williams, which is the films real reward.
We come to like Williams, throughout the film, and it’s one of the magical qualities of the film that Steve’s awkward, intrusive filmmaking somehow serves to show just what a likeable person Williams is. He keeps inviting Steve along, humoring his intrusive questions, bring him on tour with him even though no one else really wants him around. Williams is, as his superfans describe him at the beginning, an incredibly nice guy. But until this moment, you don’t really see how strong he is. Paul Williams is not a sad person, cast down from fame and defeated by life. He is someone who triumphed over addiction and went on to become an addiction counselor, who still sings and performs the way he wants to, who is married and happy with his life. Paul Williams is exactly where he wants to be. Paul Williams is a hero.
Steve’s role in the film wasn’t really emphasized in anything I read about it, so I wound up being a little surprised by the way the film played out, and often wasn’t sure if Steve knew what he was doing, if he was self-aware enough, as a filmmaker, to know how he was making himself look. But Steve knows what he’s doing. The scene where he gets to make Marrianne Williams, Paul’s wife, look like a ridiculous fun-ruiner in Vegas is funny, but more importantly it reveals just how manipulative, jealous, and obsessed Steve can be. It’s a perfect snapshot of a fan. But while snapping this angle on himself, Kessler also manages to capture a beautiful portrait of a faded celebrity, one that isn’t sad, or tragic, or tainted by Schadenfreude, but which is instead triumphant, celebratory, and kind. We get to see the strong heart of Paul Williams, and Steve gets to paint a portrait of himself with his hero. And the fact that this all appears accidental is what makes it brilliant. The fact that we can wonder, through most of the film, if Steve is aware of the film he is really making, then be left with a perfectly complete and honest portrayal of both an interesting celebrity and his obsessive superfan is, I think, an incredible feat. That achievement, as much as the character of Paul Williams, is what I think makes this film worth seeing.
It’s possible I’m giving Kessler too much credit, I suppose. But it’s certainly not more than Paul Williams gives him. And after this film, I think I’m willing to trust Paul Williams, and try to approach people, even apparently off-kilter and obsessed people like Stephen Kessler, with an open mind and kindness, ready to understand.