The Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock style of first-person documentary often tries to be informative by staking out a position of cutesy faux-ignorance, with a narrator trying to relate to viewers by obnoxiously presuming they don’t know anything. Stephen Kessler’s documentary Paul Williams Still Alive is about a fascinating subject: diminutive singer/songwriter/actor Paul Williams, who dominated the ’70s with his songs and his quirky personality. But Kessler doesn’t seem to trust that Williams alone is enough to hold a movie. He begins by admitting his own surprise that Williams isn’t dead—a fairly insulting way to begin a bio-doc—and then he keeps bringing the subject back around to himself. The movie is about Kessler’s boyhood fascination with Williams, and Kessler’s evolving relationship with Williams after he starts following the singer around with his camera, and Kessler’s anxieties as he travels with Williams’ tour in the Philippines. Kessler talks about his own career as a director of commercials (as well as the forgotten-but-funny 2000 feature The Independent), and his worries that he’s a failure. Kessler even jokes at one point about making “one of those PBS documentaries,” and proceeds to do a parody of Ken Burns while telling the story of Williams’ early life. Intentionally or not, Kessler is sending the message, “Documentaries are lame, and Williams is only interesting insofar as he illuminates me.”
And that’s frustrating, because Kessler was given such remarkable access to Williams, who let Kessler hang around at public appearances around the world, and even provided him with a cache of videotapes containing home movies and obscure TV guest spots. With the latter, Kessler is able to reconstruct Williams’ era-specific celebrity, when someone with Williams’ odd body shape could become a staple of variety shows, talk shows, and game shows. With the former, Kessler is able to record Williams telling a funny story about his alcoholism to a roomful of people involved with recovery, and to get Williams talking about how Peter Lawford once asked him to be on The Mike Douglas Show so he could score some of that good Philadelphia cocaine. But throughout, Kessler keeps pressing Williams, asking him to talk about how it felt to be popular but not “hip,” and to describe the experience of being one of the best-known personalities in America, then being largely forgotten (by Kessler, anyway) a couple of decades later.
To Kessler’s credit though, he includes Williams’ responses to those questions, which ostensibly amount to, “Fuck off dude, I was a drug addict.” Williams tolerates Kessler, and even seems to like the guy, but he refuses to wallow for the director, or subject himself to more fly-on-the-wall footage than he has to, or to talk about money on camera. (For what it’s worth, Williams seems to be living comfortably, though he plays smaller rooms these days. And he definitely seems to be a happy guy, surrounded by loved ones.) Anyone with even a marginal interest in Williams and the pop culture of the ’70s will want to power through Kessler’s incessant yammering just to watch the clips, which show Williams palling around with Robert Blake and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and singing a song while flanked by Billy Joel and Dave Mason, and trading sitcom quips with Tony Randall. The footage in Paul Williams Still Alive—old and new—is highly entertaining, even moving. But it’s as though Kessler recorded the DVD commentary track first, then made the movie.