There was a point in the seventies when Paul Williams was everywhere. The hit songs he wrote dominated the charts and became staples, including Three Dog Night’s “An Old Fashioned Love Song”; The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”; and “Rainbow Connection,” performed by Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie. The diminutive star also appeared on the big and small screens, most notably as the villainous Swan in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (which he also co-scored), a genius orangutan in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and a regular guest on Johnny Carson’s couch. He also acted in episodes of The Love Boat, The Odd Couple and The Gong Show. And then: he quickly faded from the spotlight.
With songs about loneliness and his outsider persona, Williams struck a chord with many, including director Stephen Kessler. When he began to investigate his childhood idol, Kessler was surprised to learn that Williams is still very much alive, and set out to make a documentary. Williams allows Kessler to accompany him on his travels, but the director soon discovers that his subject isn’t the same man from television that he once idolized.
Despite Kessler’s initial plan to stay behind the camera, Williams coaxes him out, and Kessler becomes part of the story. He follows Williams from small hotel gigs to celebrity golf tournaments to a stadium show in the Philippines — where the downright manic and nervous director must accompany Williams on a six-hour bus ride through a terrorist-infested jungle to get to a gig. During this expedition, their strained relationship helps shape a candid examination of an artist who fought against his own drug-fuelled ego run amok and then became more in love with the attention than the music.
Paul Williams Still Alive is both a rollicking pop-culture flashback filled with great television and performance clips, and the humorous journey of an awkward documentarian and his reluctant subject. Yet it ultimately evolves into the touching tale of a man who has made peace with the beast that fame and celebrity awoke.