While I will always claim film as my number one true love, the art of music has never been far behind. I’ve been infatuated with 80s and 90s music scene in all its glory. Alanis Morrissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” and Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” are two of my favorite albums of ALL time.
I’ll admit, begrudgingly, that anything prior to that era I’ve either had to discover by accident when stumbling upon it in a film, or worse yet, watching a 60s themed episode of American Idol. Is this sad? Damn right it is. I staggered on someone’s You Tube collection of the Best Oscar speeches in history. I can recall watching Paul Williams’ acceptance speech at the Oscars thanking the “little people” with charm, wit, and humor. Never thought of or acknowledged the man’s existence then or after. If you’re unaware, Paul Williams is one of the great song writers of our time, penning the tunes of “We’ve Only Just Begun” sang by Karen Carpenter and his Oscar-winning song, “Evergreen” from A Star is Born (1976). Williams has also had nominated songs from Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and The Muppet Movie (1979).
In Stephen Kessler’s documentary Paul Williams Still Alive, he not only introduces the aura and talents of a musician and entertainer from a dark era of our cultural society, but allows himself to become a part of the process and subject of his experimentation. I’ve always admired a director that allows his own personal outlook and delicate sentiments to be a character in his own creation. While Kessler handles Paul Williams like an injured bird at times, attempting to nurse him back to life, Paul’s natural disposition on his life post-drugs, alcoholism, and every other celebrity recourse one can endure, is one of great inspiration and reform.
Unsure what Kessler really wanted from Paul during his time documenting his actions, life, and family, Kessler’s realization of years spent following him around is one of the most honest proclamations of a filmmaker this year.
“I didn’t want to stop being around him.”
Getting to be around your childhood hero, in his revolting, splendor, stylish, dense, and absolutely magnetic personality is an experience not many will have in their lifetime. I can only imagine being able to sit with my childhood heroes, if they were still alive. Having a drink with River Phoenix, or listening to Celia Cruz with Raul Julia, or kicking back on a Kung-Fu flick with Brandon Lee are only mere fantasies that hopefully I can encounter in the world beyond. Kessler gets to live it. Envy, true envy.
While this realization comes at an awkward moment, and Kessler never truly allows Paul to get into the nitty-gritty of his life, there remains a slight disconnect. A scene where Paul attempts to speak about his father dying, Kessler feels the need to interrupt and bring something obscure about Paul’s music back to the film; the sheer annoyance on Paul’s face is shared with the viewer. Paul wants us to understand his upbringing and feelings about it. Kessler wants to know about his relationship with music and his feelings about it. They attempt to build a bridge between the two opposing viewpoints. Is the bridge a fantastically made structure? No, but it’s a well-respected one nonetheless. The little idiosyncrasies make for funny and hilarious moments.
The true star of the film is still Paul Williams at the end of the day. He’s been a part of my life and I didn’t even know it. He’s the neighbor who moves your newspaper so your sprinklers don’t drench it. You never knew he did it for you, but he was there, incognito, mysterious, and ever helpful. His ending song, “Still Alive,” penned once again by himself, is the best song piece of a film this year yet. It’s timely, brilliant, and lyrically a masterclass in song-writing. Not since “The Weary Kind,” from Crazy Heart (2009) has a song felt so perfect and well-placed in a motion picture. It encapsulates the essence of Paul Williams and his legacy in what can only be a miracle of his lively, still breathing, energetic self. If there’s a category for Kessler’s film to be noticed at the Academy Awards, Original Song has never had a better candidate. Documentary Feature seems only fitting as well.
If you’re looking for pure entertainment, jamming to some cool tunes, and exploring the mental psyche of a man and his camera in the presence of his idol, Paul Williams Still Alive is an engrossing picture. Full of heart and feeling, it’s one of the year’s best films.