Stephen Kessler is filmmaker. He began his career in commercials, directed an Oscar-nominated short film, then rode that success to a couple of feature comedies, one big, one small (National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation, The Independent). He's also longtime fan of musician Paul Williams (most famous for writing "Rainbow Connection" for The Muppet Movie and appearing in numerous films, including the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise), but he's shocked to discover that the drug and alcohol addiction that pushed Williams out of the spotlight in the late '80s was not his end. Upon discovering that Williams is not only alive and well but still performing, Kessler travels to Canada, where Paul is performing following a screening of Phantom. Energized by the sight of his hero still at it, Kessler decides to make a documentary about Williams' life and career...much to Williams' chagrin.
In telling a story that is as much about Kessler as it is about Williams himself, Paul Williams Still Alive seems to break a few unspoken rules about documentary filmmaking. At the very least, Kessler cutting significantly into the screen time with his own story feels as if it threatens to alienate an audience who came to see Williams and not an overly-excited tour guide. Yet, the candidness and sense of humor about the struggle to shoot and complete the film ends up providing Kessler with a perfect backbone for the film's narrative.
In the beginning, Williams is reluctant to allow Kessler much access into his life. The two manage to work their way up to being friends, but Williams stays a bit distant, even when Kessler begins accompanying Williams and his wife to shows, first all over the country, and eventually out of the United States. Throughout the first half of the movie, Williams is polite but vocal about his occasional irritation with Kessler's endless question and the constant digital eye over his shoulder. Meanwhile, Kessler tells the viewer, via voice-over, about his own love for Williams' music, then segues into a quick little history lesson about Williams' career. Williams is candid about his addiction, both in a one-on-one interview and in footage from a recovery conference at which Williams is the guest speaker.
On the surface, the documentary appears to be pretty straightforward: aside from interview footage, it seems as if this is basically Kessler's experience making the movie, presented in chronological order, but there's more to it than that. For one thing, the sheer number of balls Kessler and editor David Zieff manage to keep in the air is often a real feat: the comedy, discussion of Williams' life and career, the progression of the documentary, and Kessler's personal view of the whole experience, without allowing the pace to flag. 84 minutes is no long sit, but they still breeze by. Above all, Kessler and Zieff keep the viewer on the right side of Kessler at all times: when he's being obnoxious, it turns Williams' tense tolerance of him into a shared experience and brings them closer to him, and as Kessler and Williams become comfortable with one another, the viewer feels as if they are becoming more familiar with Williams too.
Despite his oddball style, Kessler manages to paint a candid and honest picture of his subject, even with his tongue often set firmly in cheek. Kessler is actually pretty good at drawing things out of Williams, and the interview segments are pretty insightful about Williams' journey in and out of worldwide fame, his troubled family history, his battle with addiction, and his philosophical view of it all. Kessler even includes the occasional refusal or bad reaction to a question, just because even those moments say something. Not every aspect of the documentary is successful (Kessler's paranoia about the Philippines feels a little forced, even if it works out nicely, and the end comes close to being overly sentimental), but in its own unique way, Paul Williams Still Alive is a fitting picture for its equally unique subject.
Virgil Films' artwork for Paul Williams Still Alive is kinda underwhelming, taking the poster art and...well, that's pretty much it. The same image appears on the front and the back, and the same baby blue color continues across the whole thing. The summary on the back doesn't really explain the concept of the movie very well, either.
The Video and Audio
As with many documentaries, Paul Williams Still Alive offers video clips from a number of sources: analog video recordings of his TV appearances, clips from his movies of varying quality, photographs, and even YouTube. These aside, this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer still looks pretty rough. Shot on a mixture of cameras, the worst moments are riddled with artifacting, softness, mosquito noise, banding, and even some bleeding. A couple of really crucial interview segments are much more stable, with good clarity and color, but the picture is not consistent. Image clarity is not particularly integral to the documentary, so there's no reason to hold out for a better presentation, but there are certainly a number of low-fi, low-budget limitations to the image here.
Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, which sounds much better than the audio often looks. Despite the fact that the music is recorded in a number of environments, and frequently without direct input to pick up Williams' performances in full, there's still a nice roominess to the music on this surround sound track. Any interview segments are nice and punchy, but even the occasional on-the-fly recording sounds pretty good. Williams' songs on the soundtrack are icing on the cake. No alternate audio or subtitles / captions are offered, but the closed captioning function is available for anyone whose TV offers supports them.
Only one extra: "Bonus Concert Footage" (3:33, 3:58, 2:00, 3:55, 2:52) consists of five song clips ("Won't Last a Day," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "That's Enough For Me," "You and Me Against the World," and of course "Rainbow Connection") from Kessler's various concert shoots. Some of these include anecdotes and stage banter, which fans will likely enjoy.
No trailers are included.
It may sound a bit indulgent and narcissistic on paper for Stephen Kessler to make a documentary that is as much about himself and his relationship with Paul Williams as it is about Williams himself, somehow he manages to pull it off, crafting a humorous, highly entertaining look at the musician, and the journey of making this very documentary. Recommended.
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