Saturday, February 9, 2013

PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE: Stephen Kessler's celebrity doc works on all levels

How rare is it to watch a documentary about a celebrity that manages to avoid just about every pitfall in the book? The beauty of Stephen Kessler's documentary about the diminutive song-writer/singer/enter-tainer/celebrity Paul Williams, out now on DVD and elsewhere, rests in its willingness to tackle its subject every which way -- including the manner in which the filmmaker wants to tell it and the way Williams himself insists on it -- resul-ting in a documentary that adheres to the rules (this is no hybrid narrative/docu mash-up) and ends up seeming extraordinarily honest about, well, everything it touches.

The filmmaker (shown at right) doesn't touch everything, mind you -- Mr. Williams won't go into certain subjects, which is his call, and he flat out argues with the director about certain other ones -- but what the documentary does encompass, it makes genuine and in-the-moment. And it gives us a remarkably rich look at a very talented celebrity, then and now, and lets the man (and us) muse on the rewards, drawbacks and meaning of this kind of in-the-spotlight life.

The surprise here, and it is quite a surprise, is how Mr. Williams looks at his past career, his present one (yes, he's still going fairly strong), and what has happened in between. He turns out to be not just a talented guy but a smart one, too, and some of the things he has to tell us are more than a little thoughtful and rewarding. My favorite is his off-the-cuff remark about his current (and, I believe, third wife): "She got the man that the former two wives imagined that they had gotten." Only with a lot of growth and change, however, has the younger man becomes his older and more responsible counterpart.

What about those terrific songs Williams wrote, and all the famous celebrities with whom he was constantly rubbing shoulders? Ah, they're here, and we get to revel in those 70s TV shows and hair styles, and the smart, often touching lyrics and memorable tunes the composer came up with. The movie is impressionistic, as it jumps from this to that and the next big thing, and although Kessler is a huge fan of Williams, the latter never allows the former to gush. Hence the tone, which is admiring (hell, there's a lot to like about this guy and his work) is kept nicely in check by the subject of that admiration.

As documentaries about celebrities (particularly living celebs) go, PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE, may be the one to beat. It just about perfectly balances nostalgia with now, and at 86 eminently watchable minutes, it's a model of intelligent concision and inclusion. It also demonstrates how a filmmaker can approach and work with a celebrity to produce something of which both can be proud -- and viewers can bask in and learn from.

The documentary is available now on DVD, VOD and various digital sources. Or you can download it here.

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