If you were a child of the '70s and '80s, then Paul Williams was one of the most recognizable celebrities of your youth, too. Yet when Michael suggested we see the new documentary, aptly titled "Paul Williams: Still Alive" -- did you know he's still alive? -- I really couldn't say exactly what he was famous for. "That guy who looks just like Cousin Oliver?" was my first response (followed by flashbacks to "Smoky and the Bandit," "The Muppet Show," "Police Woman," "Baretta," "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour" and countless talk shows and game shows) Then when I asked my pal Mark he made the exact same Cousin Oliver remark(!) -- after initially fumbling with "The 'Short People' guy?" (As a matter of fact, Williams was famous for being short, although he's not Randy Newman.)
Paul Williams, of course, is best known as an Oscar and Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter, of an impressive list of hits including "Evergreen," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "We've Only Just Begun," "I Won't Last a Day Without You," "An Old-Fashioned Love Song" and "The Rainbow Connection," to name a few.
But how do I review this documentary fairly? I don't like anything about its crafting, yet couldn't recommend it to fans more. As director Whitney Smith did with "Ultrasuede: The Search for the Real Halston" in 2010, director Stephen Kessler inserts himself -- OK, rams himself -- into the story line, pretending to not want to be there as he sucks attention away from our beloved star, who has already reluctantly agreed to be in the project to begin with. Williams, as the title indicates, has greatly stepped away from the spotlight since becoming sober nearly 20 years ago, and while he still makes personal appearances to hordes of unbelievably loyal and obsessed fans (some of the most touching footage, BTW), speaking at AA type events seems to be his true passion these days. Kessler, who claims to be a super fan who greatly related to Williams as kid, doesn't miss an opportunity to try to point out how to Williams just how far he's "fallen" since his heyday, going so far as to make him watch a particularly unflattering moment when he, clearly out of his mind on drugs, was filling in for Mike Douglas and nonchalantly bragging about how much he loves his wife, but the minute he goes out of town, he's not really married anymore.
In the end, this and several other unseemly stunts by the director end up revealing that Williams truly is a changed man -- happily married to Wife 3 ("she got the man the first two thought they'd married"), a good father to two adult children, remorseful of his past boorish behavior, and equally uninterested in reliving past glories or indignities. (Kessler does not get his "gotcha" moment.) That the film ends up portraying the songwriter in such a favorable light was not a certain thing, and I couldn't help but think there were other ways to go about making a documentary about Paul Williams -- for better or worse -- that didn't include Kessler's shenanigans. But that being said, Stephen Kessler is the one who had the enthusiasm and fortitude to see this project through. And if you're a fan of Mr. Rainy Days and Mondays, you'll be grateful that he did.