Friday, September 16, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "Paul Williams: Still Alive"

Paul Williams: Still Alive
(Real To Reel)
(USA, 2011, 87 minutes)
Directed by: Stephen Kessler
Cast: Paul Williams, Stephen Kessler, Robert Blake, John Travolta, Barbra Streisand
I honestly can't remember a time during my childhood in which the distinctive stature and voice of Paul Williams wasn't a presence in my parents' living room: Karen Carpenter and Three Dog Night performing his songs on the tinny AM radio, and on the tube, appearances (often as himself) on The Brady Bunch, The Love Boat, The Odd Couple, The Muppet Show (and Movie), every conceivable talk/quiz show “Match Game”, “Hollywood Squares" mostly), and even “Battle For The Planet Of The Apes” (I was a pre-pubescent “Apes” maniac bordering on the pathological, so his appearance as peacenik orangutan Virgil was probably what converted me). In my teens, I discovered of the forbidden thrill of Danny Peary’s “Cult Movies” in which Brian DePalma's “The Phantom Of The Paradise” received very high praise indeed , and as the fates validated my obsession but offering a well-timed late night TV broadcast.
Then, Williams seemed to just...vanish. I mean, I didn’t notice, really--I grew into a teenage filmmaker and cineaste, most network television bored me, and I could barely get to the communal television set in my university residence to catch a late night Letterman broadcast or SCTV rerun, never mind to keep up on the state of the pop culture nation (which was changing radically, thanks to the 30 megaton blast of a little thing called MTV).
Only once, a few years back, when I happened upon a broadcast of “Stone Cold Dead”--one of the odder Canadian Tax Shelter exploitation gems, in which Williams plays a sniper targeting prostitutes (really) pursued by Richard Crenna--did I briefly wonder where it was he’d vanished to. As with most celebs from my childhood, I’d hoped he'd retired on his money and accolades and was doing well. Or well-enough for a two-night run at one of the better border casinos. Did he fade from the spotlight, or was he unceremoniously drop-kicked to the margins?
Director Stephen Kessler had a similar impromptu moment, and a Wiki search lead him to pursue a documentary on his childhood idol. The successful commercial director bankrolled a trip to Los Angeles to meet Williams and was promptly rejected.
Tracking him down to a restaurant, Williams allows him in and they bond over, of all things, a mutual love of calamari. Soon, Kessler realizes he's not dealing with persona he once idolized on television.
Kessler now steps in front of the camera and becomes a comical presence, initially, constantly bemoaned and badgered by Williams who is clearly irritated with Kessler's probing questions and unintended disrespect for his privacy.
Kessler accompanies Williams from one-off lounge gigs to celebrity golf tournaments to a Philippines stadium tour — necessitating a six-hour bus ride through an Al-Quada occupied jungle when the client won't pay for a plane. Over time, Williams grows comfortable with Kessler's camera and becomes relaxed and accommodating. Fueled by drugs and an inflated ego, Williams blames only himself for his downward spiral.
While his Oscars and Emmys sit on a shelf next to a dust-covered DVD remote in his modest home, Williams reveals at the film's conclusion a cold storage shed filled with memorabilia from virtually every aspect of his once-meteoric career. From it, Kessler assembles a series of flashbacks both warmly nostalgic and blistering candid, esp. the week Williams hosted The Mike Douglas Show and offered near-daily meltdowns.
After the screening I happened upon him getting into his limo just outside of the AMC Theatre and darted over to congratulate. He graciously gave me a few moments of his time, and his first question was “did you like the new song at the end?” (McCartney was equally giddy with the need for affirmation of his new material in “The Love We Make”). Truth is, I barely heard it, but I'm guessing that once others experience this wonderful, inspirational film it'll soon be hard to avoid him again...
©2011 Robert J. Lewis