Last night we watched the documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive. It was okay, but problematic. It might be interestingly problematic. Stick with this, because there is a point. I promise.
Basically, this guy, Stephen Kessler, was amazed to find out that award-winning, chart-topping soft-rock songwriter and television personality Paul Williams was not dead. In his joy and amazement, he set out to make a documentary about his childhood hero, hoping that maybe it would culminate in the two of them having a sleepover and staying up all night watching old tv clips from his many appearances and swapping tales of 70’s celebrity wacky times. Probably sitting in a pillow fort, wearing their pajamas and drinking Kool-Aid.
Result: the documentarian becomes the documented, and the experiment in narcicissm becomes really freaking tragic. It’s worth watching, if you want to see how what could be a very good documentary can go totally tits up.
This movie’s most annoying attribute is not Kessler’s strained relationship with Williams’ wife, the shaky filming, or the fact that Williams knows how run an interview and how to direct a documentary better than this guy. It’s that not once does he touch on Paul Williams’ songwriting process.
Kessler concentrates on the fame, tv appearances, booze, drugs, and sobriety, all the things about which Williams doesn’t want to talk, what should be the painful third act of your documentary, a part of it, not the end goal or sum and substance. We see Williams touch a keyboard once in the entire film (other than archival footage), and then only for a second. Paul Williams is now the president of ASCAP, and I can’t imagine a better advocate for the rights of songwriters. Although I have to admit I’d love to hear a discussion between him and Jonathan Coulton about songwriters’ rights in a mixed media world. I think Coulton’s experience with audience relationships and the Internet would be interestingly balanced by Williams’ decades in TV, film, and recording.
Kessler totally missed the fact that when you hear a Paul Williams song, you know it’s his, even if you don’t know the title, and haven’t been told anything about it. He has a particular style, once stamped on a song, which pulls the listener in, and then turns just as soon as a comfort level is established. He has an aural relationship with exposition, conflict, escalation and resolution which makes the listener always want a little bit more.
Kessler’s documentary is watchable, and shows us an intimate and painful side of a guy who has made a lot of people happy for many years (particularly in the Phillipines). But it doesn’t show Williams’ productivity, never asked once how he worked on music while getting clean, or how he works on music now. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT STUFF. This is the kind of thing that helps artists and listeners and ARGH ARGH ARGH Come on, pal. Grow up.
The documentary was made in 2011, so it was made years before Williams became the president of ASCAP, and long before Daft Punk would have tapped him for involvement in their work.
If you listen to this, even without Williams’ unmistakeably unique voice, you can hear his style, despite the layers of electronica and Daft Punkiness of it all. Particularly at about the three minute mark, where the music fills your head with curly-haired women in glittery gowns twirling under colored lights, and Muppets playing sax and juggling silk handkerchiefs. But then the song widens and deepens, and this is the work of a really grown-up master of the art form. This might not be The Only King Of Pop, but he’s certainly a King Of Pop. This is The Phantom of the Paradise and Evergreen.
So, yeah, nice try Kessler, but before you spend a lot of time on the tree’s tinsel, why not water its roots?