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Paul Williams Still Alive

It’s sort of obvious that Stephen Kessler, a veteran of only 3 feature films over the last decade-and-a-half with his latest being this documentary, isn’t a top-notch director. I mean this is the guy that killed Chevy Chase’s “Vacation” franchise with “Vegas Vacation” in 1997. A few years later he helmed a vehicle starring Jerry Stiller called “The Independent” that grossed roughly a quarter of a million bucks. No wonder he disappeared for over a decade. Now we know what he was doing at least part of that time. He was practically stalking 1970’s icon, Paul Williams. Kessler even claims that he believed the singer/songwriter/actor to be dead, although I’m finding that hard to believe in the age of google. No matter, the director has chosen a worthy subject for his initial foray into full-length documentary film-making, and the result is a wonderful nostalgia trip for people of a certain age(like my age, for instance). Yeah, it’s a bumpy ride, with some uneven going(Kessler bonded with Williams over squid?), but the main thrust of the film’s focus is 100% accurate. It seemed like Paul Williams was everywhere in the 1970’s. And the archival footage used in this doc is invaluable—it almost completely carries the film. Appearances on “The Odd Couple”, “The Love Boat” and “The Hollywood Squares”. Yukking it up with Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore on their respective talk shows—and even guest hosting sometimes! “Circus of the Stars”? Yup. “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour”? Paul did that too. “Baretta”, “Police Woman” and “Hawaii Five-O”? He acted in episodes of all of them. There were film roles too in things like, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”, “Smokey and the Bandit” and the cult classic “Phantom of the Paradise”. He did the music for that last one, as well, and he also penned the songs for “Bugsy Malone”(an Oscar-nominated Score) and “The Muppet Movie”(nominated for two music Oscars, including one for the Williams-written, “The Rainbow Connection”). And wouldn’t you know it, Paul even took home an Oscar for the Barbra Streisand-sung “Evergreen” in the 1976 remake of “A Star is Born”. That’s some resume. And we loved this guy as kids. He had an infectious personality and a soothing voice. And Kessler hits it right on the nose when he presents the fact that Williams was certainly the classic underdog when considering this level of success. He was chubby and barely over 5 feet tall. He sported shoulder-length blond hair and tinted glasses. Paul Williams was no looker. So, if he could make it in Hollywood, it stood to reason that most anyone could, right? And he kept on working, writing and appearing straight into the 1980’s after turning 40 in the first year of the new decade. But, as the film notes, the drinking and drugs really started controlling things by then. Seems Paul was hooked on things like booze and coke all throughout his 1970’s fame—and the mind and body can only take it so long. The film showcases a couple of talk show appearances where Williams claimed he was “high as a kite”, including a mid-80’s appearance where he arrogantly rambles and then briefly removes his glasses to inadvertently reveal two zoned-out saucer eyes. We are told that the substance abuse ruined Paul’s relationships, his career and his health. We’ve heard this story before, of course. So, why do we root for Paul Williams? Well, for one thing, the film shows that he has seemed to piece things back together and that he’s been sober for over two decades. Plus, he’s extremely remorseful regarding the people he has hurt, and he’s sought out ways to reconcile with some of them. He’s working and succeeding again too—although not to the level of his 1970’s heyday, of course. The love for Paul Williams remains. And he seems to appreciate it as we witness him sign every autograph at an event until all are satisfied. Paul Williams is 72 years old now, but I still found myself marvelling at his persona like I did when I was a little kid watching television. He made it against all odds and he’s managed a comeback too. Kessler’s documentary could have used some more polish, but Williams’ personality saves it. How to explain to a modern-day audience the unlikely stardom of Paul Williams? Well, starting with this film can help. It shows the man and all of his warts. But he survived. Still writing. Still singing. Still acting. Still alive.     Grade:  B-

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