If you’re younger than me (I’m in my mid-40s), you probably have no idea who Paul Williams is. But if you’re my age or older, you will probably remember Williams in one way or another. He was a prolific songwriter who wrote such standards as “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Evergreen,” and “The Rainbow Connection.” And Williams probably appeared on every TV show in the 1970s, from “The Tonight Show” to “The Muppet Show” to “The Gong Show” … and every damn 1970s TV show in between. He was also Little Enos in the “Smokey and the Bandit” films. However, as the 1970s faded, so did Williams’ career. He became a major alcohol and drug addict but eventually got sober and became an addiction counselor.
Filmmaker Stephen Kessler, a fan of Williams and the director of “Paul Williams Still Alive,” assumed he was dead. But when he found out Williams was alive, Kessler was determined to make a documentary about him. The funny thing is that Williams … despite a seeming tendency to never say “No” to any personal appearance in the 1970s … is extremely reluctant. “Paul Williams Still Alive” shows the struggles Kessler had in gaining Williams’ trust and participation in a documentary about his life. Eventually, Williams acquiesced, but only so much. It’s clear that Williams is not proud of a lot of his behavior in the past and not just the drug abuse. Williams also seems ashamed of his incessant need to be in the spotlight during the height of his fame, hence his reluctance to participate in the documentary. But as Kessler learns, Williams is not someone who keeps looking back, he keeps looking forward. And Williams seems a lot happier living a more modest lifestyle.
Despite what you may or may not think about Williams as a musician and composer (he’s never been a critics’ favorite), the man is a legend and this movie is a fine document about his life then and now. It’s also a fascinating look at the process of documentary filmmaking and the ups and downs of befriending your idols. At times, it seems like a real-life Albert Brooks film, only much more compassionate. Very highly recommended.