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Paul Williams: Still Alive (2011)

Virgil Films
DVD Release: 2/5/2013

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/17/2013

Several documentaries have come across my desk recently, so I've been thinking a lot about the quality and diversity of the films in this genre, and I've decided that many factors are at play here. In an upcoming review, I'll be discussing the role which timing plays in making a documentary about a subject from the present. For this review, we'll be talking about the importance of the film's subject matter. Sometimes, a documentary is about something which captures your interest, or, more likely, something about which you'd like to learn more. At other times, you have little interest in the topic and thus the documentary must work harder to draw you in. Stephen Kessler's Paul Williams: Still Alive was facing an uphill battle with me, and fortunately, Kessler was up to the task.

If you watched TV in the 70s, then you saw Paul Williams, as he was everywhere. Even if you weren't sure who he was, it was hard to miss the diminutive man with the long blonde hair and the ubiquitous glasses. He was constantly appearing on talk shows (he was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), as well as variety shows (like The Muppet Show) and even some scripted series. He also appeared in the first two Smokey and the Bandit films as ďLittle EnosĒ. However, when he appeared, he would usually sing, as he was one of the industries most successful and sought-after composers. Then, one day, he simply disappeared from the public eye. Director Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation - a vastly underrated movie) was a fan of Williamsí while growing up and lamented the fact that the star had died so young. However, after doing some internet research, Kessler realized that Williams was still alive and still working. So, Kessler approached Williams after a performance and proposed a documentary so that others, like himself, could learn that this once omnipresent person was still out there. Williams reluctantly agreed, but it was clear that neither he, nor his wife, Mariana, were that crazy about the idea of being followed by cameras all of the time. However, as the process unfolded, Williams began to warm up, and thus open up, to Kessler, which allowed the director more access. From that point on, Kessler was allowed a closer view of Williamsí life today, while also exploring the highs and lows of his past.

Not unlike Kessler, I too am a child of the 70s, and I remember seeing Paul Williams on TV all of the time. However, unlike Kessler, I was not a fan. There was something about the man I found off-putting. Perhaps it was his ďhipĒ long hair, which didnít match his persona. More likely, it was his smug attitude, which he never seemed to let go of. Whatever the case, I didnít like him, and while I wasnít regularly watching the talk shows of Dinah Shore or Mike Douglas, when I did see him, I was not impressed. But, when Paul Williams: Still Alive was announced, I realized that I hadnít heard that name in decades, and found myself oddly curious to see what had become of this man.

First of all, Kessler does a great job of tracing Williamsí history. Through dozens of clips from television shows and movies, we see how Williams truly was seemingly everywhere at the time and how he was embraced by the show business crowd. (At the end of the movie, we finally learn how Kessler got access to all of this footage.) We then get details on the many famous and hit songs which Williams wrote. (Most of which I didnít know about. I was under the impression that The Carpenters wrote their own music.)

Then we have the modern footage. As noted, the first parts are a bit awkward, as Williams is clearly uncomfortable. However, as the film progresses, Kessler is allowed to get closer, both literally and figuratively to Williams. The camera follows Williams as he makes appearances both in America and in The Philippines. Kessler also does one-on-one interviews with Williams, where he discusses his childhood, his early career, and his downfall with drugs and alcohol.

On the whole, Paul Williams: Still Alive is a successful biography, as it does a good job of introducing us to the subject, updating us, and showing us what life is like today for the artist. Again, itís Kesslerís enthusiasm and apparent likeability which make this work. However, there were a few things which I didnít like, which may not be Kesslerís fault. First of all, we are told that Williamsí career went into decline due to drugs and alcohol and that he eventually did some drug counseling himself once he got clean. However, the in-depth details on this are vague, and we never get a clear sense of where -- geographically and career-wise -- Williams was in the 90s. Secondly, the idea of finances was clearly off the table. We see a scene in which Williams is offered a gig, but the salary is bleeped out. However, one canít help but wonder if Williams still get royalties from his early hits or does his survive solely on the money earned from performing. We see his house, which is modest, but nice. (And being in Los Angeles, Iím sure that it cost 5x what it would if it were in any other part of the country.) Did Paul Williams: Still Alive change my mind about the man? Not really, but it certainly made him seem more human and I actually learned something. Isnít that a goal of every documentary?

Paul Williams: Still Alive offers an interesting conversation about calamari on DVD courtesy of Virgil Films. The movie has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The film offers video from different sources and thus, we different levels of quality here. The modern-day material is sharp and clear, showing little grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good, and save for some moments where Kessler was at the mercy of natural lighting, things are never overly dark. The archive material varies in quality, but most of it looks surprisingly good, especially the old TV shows. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue. Again, there are some moments where things are muffled due to the speakerís proximity to the mic and background noise, but otherwise, things sound fine. At the live shows, we get some surround sound play with the crowd noise.

The extras on the Paul Williams: Still Alive DVD are five live performance by Williams which include the songs "Won't Last a Day", "Rainy Days and Mondays", "That's Enough for Me", "You and Me Against the World", and "Rainbow Connection".

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.