For those of us who grew up in the 70s, Paul Williams was an icon who wrote the soundtrack of our lives – songs like “Rainy Days and Mondays” (recorded by The Carpenters), “Evergreen” (co-written with and sung by Barbra Streisand in the film, A Star is Born), and the anthem of The Muppets, “Rainbow Connection.” He appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show numerous times, as well as other TV shows of the day. Then, he all but disappeared from the public eye.
Filmmaker Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation), who had been a fan of Williams for many years, set out to find out what happened to the songwriter. The result is a documentary called Paul Williams Still Alive.
It’s an unusual documentary in that it doesn’t focus solely on its subject. Instead, Williams suggests that the filmmaker put himself into the narrative, and he does. While this isn’t entirely successful, Kessler becomes a representative in the film of Williams’ die-hard fans. I got the impression that this approach became necessary, at least in part, because Williams never fully surrendered to the making of the film. There are quite a few moments in which Williams is disturbed and perturbed by the camera’s infiltration into his life. Over time, however, he warms to Kessler and eventually invites the director to travel with him to the Philippines and later visit his home.
Williams fell out of the public eye largely because of addiction. Today, he often speaks to groups about his fall from grace and subsequent two decades of sobriety. Williams is not proud of the man he was in the past and is happier today, living a more modest life. He still makes public appearances, but they are frequently for small groups of people in secondary hotels. He’s hardly the icon he once was, but Kessler fails to get Williams to say he wishes he could regain his prior level of fame.
One of the themes in the documentary is Williams’ need to be “special” rather than “different.” This need seems to have driven a lot of his destructive behavior earlier in his life, which was brought on by his small stature and resulting young appearance. While in his 20s, he acted in a couple of films but was unable to play his own age because he looked like a child.
Ultimately, the documentary surpasses Kessler’s presence to make a moving statement about recovery from addiction, the trappings of fame, and the fact that fame alone does not spell happiness. For Williams (who is now the President of ASCAP, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), the life he leads today at 71 is more enjoyable than the life he led as a younger, more famous man under the influence of recreational substances. He comes across as someone who is finally comfortable in his own skin.