By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
In some other era, a talented composer might have been led astray by a variety of temptations: intrigue in a royal court, too much absinthe drinking, a dalliance with a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl.
But Paul Williams was around in the 1970s, and that wacky decade led this musical dynamo into a strange world indeed, as he fell into game shows, substance abuse, shameless self-promotion and “Circus of the Stars.”
Williams was everywhere during those years. And you couldn’t miss him: even in ’70s platform shoes, he stood 5-foot-2, with floppy blond hair and giant Jackie O eyeglasses.
A gifted songwriter, Williams couldn’t resist the impulse to croon his own tunes or trade one-liners with Johnny Carson. Let’s put it this way: George Gershwin and Burt Bacharach never played a simian in a “Planet of the Apes” movie.
In case you were wondering whatever became of Paul Williams, the documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive” is here to address, if not answer, your questions. The movie’s ragged, but it does shine a light on Williams’ peculiar story and on the urge to be a celebrity in general.
Filmmaker Stephen Kessler was a big fan of Paul Williams back in the day, and he trails around after the fallen legend with a camera. Except Williams isn’t too keen on the idea of being considered a fallen legend, even if he admits his years of excess and proudly points to his years of sobriety.
The back-and-forth between filmmaker and subject gets tedious (why wouldn’t Williams be a little defensive?), especially when there’s an interesting life waiting to be described. I’d like to know more about Williams’ experience writing songs and playing a lead role in Brian De Palma’s cult classic “Phantom of the Paradise,” for instance, but that barely comes up.
“Still Alive” suggests that Williams might be schlepping around on concert tours to the Philippines because he needs the money, although it’s hard to believe his royalties aren’t keeping him comfortable these days. What emerges, especially in the very real enthusiasm of the fans touched by his music, is that Williams is driven by a deep need to be approved. And probably loved.
His rocky childhood is briefly described (including medical treatment that allegedly backfired and may have stunted his growth), and there’s very little description of his writing process.
Clips from his songs, when put together, capture the bittersweetness of so many of them, a tender quality belied by the pop-music packaging and Williams’ own game-show wisecracking.
You know the songs: “We’ve Only Just Begun” and other hits for the Carpenters, “The Rainbow Connection” (memorably sung by Kermit the Frog for “The Muppet Movie”), and “Evergreen,” the tune from “A Star is Born” that won him an Oscar.
There’s got to be some interesting stuff going on with this guy, and maybe Paul Williams will pen an autobiography to explore it, if he hasn’t already. The movie doesn’t satisfy on that score, but the many entertaining moments make it worth a look for fans of the music, or the era.
“Paul Williams: Still Alive” ½
Very uneven as a documentary, but fans of the songwriter or the 1970s will find many entertaining moments here. Williams’ life as sensitive writer and brassy pop-culture celebrity is recalled in lots of vintage clips, plus interviews with the now-sober Williams on tour.
Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.
Showing: SIFF Film Center.