Reviews

Stephen Kessler

USA, 2011

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 23 May 2012

Source Projected DVD

Categories The 2012 Independent Film Festival Boston

It’s the best kind of film festival moment: one where you stroll into a screening with relatively neutral expectations only to discover that you’ve stumbled into something really special. That’s precisely how I ended up feeling about director Stephen Kessler’s film Paul Williams: Still Alive, a feature length documentary that catches up with Williams, the diminutive composer, musician, actor, and perennial seventies TV guest star. Before the screening, IFFB Managing Director Brian Tamm enthusiastically introduced Still Alive to the festival audience, explaining that the film had been programmed on the fest’s penultimate night – and thus was the only screening in its time slot – because the programmers wanted to “give this film a lot of love.” Kessler, who was in attendance, tried to temper the crowd’s expectations by insisting, “You’re not going to like it as much as Brian liked it.” But the love was well deserved. Still Alive is funny, thoughtful, and, sometimes, to its credit, sweetly absurd.

Kessler offers the audience a crash course in Paul Williams with a wealth of footage, mostly from the pinnacle of Williams’ ubiquity in the 1970s. Williams has written some massive hit songs, including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” a tune that originally appeared in a bank commercial, then catapulted its composer to fame when the Carpenters took it to the top of the charts. But Williams was not content to focus strictly on his music, making regular appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and kitschy variety fare like Circus of the Stars. He even appeared in – and wrote(!) – an episode of Baretta.

In an interview with Kessler, Williams candidly discusses his motivation for making so many appearances on television, with his pursuit of fame beginning to supersede his attention to his musical gifts. Setting up a distinction between being “different” (Williams’ 5’2” frame and unconventional looks made him feel like a misfit) and being “special” (as in, the sort of person who is on TV constantly and can reliably make Johnny Carson laugh), Williams movingly describes looking to the public arena for validation, employing an ever-expanding range of strategies for being “less different and more special.”

Of course, Williams’ obsession with maintaining a constant presence in the public eye in the seventies resonates with audiences now, denizens of the media-saturated, fame-obsessed landscape of the twenty-first century. It also mirrors the insecurities of Still Alive’s director. Kessler, whose credits include the National Lampoon movie Vegas Vacation and commercials for products like Taco Bell’s Cheesy Beefy Melt, notes in voiceover that he came into the documentary feeling insecure about his own level of recognition and fame. He describes feeling that “with everything I’d done, I hadn’t done anything at all.”

The twist is that the once fame-hungry Williams doesn’t particularly want to be part of Kessler’s documentary; he isn’t interested in regaining his outrageously high profile. Williams withdrew from the spotlight in large part because he was struggling with alcohol and drugs, and Kessler is surprised to find that the composer, now recovered, doesn’t long for his glitzy-but-tortured past. Still Alive is thus as much about Williams as it is about fame itself: why so many of us seek it, and why it might not be as satisfying as it appears.

One of the film’s most distinctive stylistic choices is the fact that Kessler becomes a character in the film, and the production of the documentary itself gives the narrative much of its shape. (In this regard it is somewhat similar to the Kinks-centric documentary Do it Again.) The film’s meta approach is a gamble, the sort of thing that could have come across as self-indulgent, derivative, or too clever by half, but it works beautifully here. The bits where Kessler and Williams talk about the movie – such as when Kessler toys with the idea of making a “PBS documentary” full of narration and still pictures, or Williams derides Kessler’s choice of interview topics – are a lot of fun, and Williams’ reluctance to be a documentary subject at all ultimately speaks to the discoveries at the heart of the film.

And as much as he tries to escape such a fate in the early going, Williams is in fact a great documentary subject: he’s funny and articulate, and seems to understand the meaning of his own story, if not Kessler’s eagerness to tell it. Kessler, meanwhile, proves to be an amiable and self-deprecating tour guide through the quirks of seventies pop culture and the vagaries of fame. Rather than being a standard pop music bio, Still Alive is a film with depth beneath its humorous and frivolous surface. By the end, Kessler has managed to imbue some old footage of Williams skydiving on Circus of the Stars with so much thematic and emotional impact that I felt a catch in my throat while watching it. Seriously. Who would have expected that?

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