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.
The Video and Audio
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.
No trailers are included.