Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Paul Williams: Still Alive (d. Stephen Kessler)

Stephen Kessler's fun, funny Paul Williams: Still Alive proves that you can revere and challenge a documentary subject at the same time, and in that sense, the film was a tonic after watching two-plus hours of Pearl Jam blow their loads into Cameron Crowe's waiting mouth. Paul Williams is of course the diminutive singer-songwriter who was a veritable Zelig in the '70s, his facile wit making him a favourite guest of Johnny Carson, his unique look making him a viable character actor, his whorish need for attention making him powerless to turn down any offer to appear on television. (The day after he won an Oscar for the Barbra Streisand song "Evergreen," he agreed to do "Circus of the Stars".) Williams didn't adapt well to '80s pop culture, in part because he could no longer juggle his career with drugs and alcohol, in part because, I would argue, movies, TV, and music all started becoming so image-conscious as to marginalize guys like Williams, nobody's definition of a pretty boy. According to his self-deprecating narration, Kessler, an Oscar-nominee himself (for the short film Birch Street Gym), idolized Williams in his youth for precisely that reason. I know that girls feel the phantom pressure of the media but believe me--boys do, too; Williams was a homuncular beacon among the studly John Travoltas and Burt Reynoldses, and though many of his career choices look tacky in retrospect, most misfits only saw that he was everywhere and felt validated, nay, vindicated, by his mainstream ubiquity. Ironically, the trouble with Paul Williams: Still Alive is that it's image-obsessed in a different way. Kessler catches up with the decades-sober Williams, whom he thought dead (hence the title) and who now enjoys a quiet life of performing on the casino circuit. He grills Williams about the crap larding his resume and Williams is philosophical about it all (at one point, he muses that Simon & Garfunkel probably wish they'd done more "Hollywood Squares"), bristling only when Kessler starts speaking to him from an ivory tower. In a phenomenally squirm-inducing sequence late in the picture, Kessler subjects Williams to an episode of "Merv" the latter guest-hosted with coke-fuelled hubris. (Remember that episode of 'The Larry Sanders Show" where the chance to guest-host went to Hank's head? Multiply the painfulness of that by a thousand.) The star's reaction, as the film portrays it, is to unload a storage unit filled with archival footage of himself. Williams's arc--rags to riches to rehab--is a familiar one but that's not the problem: the problem is that although Kessler periodically reminds us that there's more to Williams than kitsch (the melancholy strains of "The Rainbow Connection," for instance), no one needs reminding more than Kessler. **½/****
PROGRAMME: Real to Reel

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