Ahoy, squirts! Quint here stealing some time between two interviews to catch up on my reviewing situation.
One of my favorite things I’ve seen at SXSW 2012 is Paul Williams Still Alive, a doc that I thought was going to be a kind of overall documentary on the life of Paul Williams but instead turned out to be a buddy movie about a filmmaker meeting an idol of his and the two men getting to know each other through this documentary.
Stephen Kessler made a great little festival movie called The Independent a few years back (we’ll forget about Vegas Vacation) and when he figured out that he could follow Paul Williams around with a camera I’d be willing to bet he had the same movie in his head that I expected walking in. Little did he know that the only way this documentary could work is if he took an active role in the story being told.
And I usually hate that in documentaries. Nine times out of ten the documentarian that makes himself or herself part of the focus of the doc is doing it for reasons of the ego and not because it’s necessary for the story.
When I see those movies anything interesting becomes drowned out by what sounds like “ME ME ME ME ME ME ME ME” in my head.
So, when Kessler is pulled in front of the camera by Williams I went, “Oh, great. There goes this doc.” But I was wrong. The story about fan and performer getting to know each other past their surface labels is the heart of the movie. A big reason why Kessler’s involvement worked for me was because he wasn’t afraid to expose his fuck ups along the way, including a particularly great scene where he asks Paul about his descent into the TV scene of the ‘70s (as host and guest star of dozens and dozens of shows) and if he realized he had lost his artistic integrity. That’s not exactly how he phrased it, but that’s how Paul took it and he was wounded by the question and takes Kessler to task for asking it in the first place, calling it a dirty trick question.
Honesty like that makes takes the documentary to another level and when you see just how reluctant Paul becomes as an interview subject it becomes very apparent that the only way he would open up is if he wasn’t the only focus of the film.
Don’t get me wrong, the doc still covers Paul’s life, his work, his music and is filled to the brim with insight into Paul as a performer, a recovering addict, an eccentric and as a man.
I don’t know if I can remember a documentary subject that’s as actively hostile as Paul is. He’s not an angry man and is in fact an incredibly compassionate person, but his heart isn’t into the doc at first. He agreed to it, but didn’t realize how intrusive it could be and finds himself not knowing exactly what to do when the camera’s on. There are things that are off limits to him, but crucial to an outsider’s understanding of his story, so Kessler pushes a bit and Paul reacts, sometimes with understanding and patience, sometimes with annoyance.
So, the heart of the movie is this relationship and for fans of Paul Williams’ music and movie work there’s that side of it, too. However the main focus is on Williams’ struggles with addiction and not just with alcohol and drugs, but with fame and attention. Williams didn’t seek attention because he had a giant ego, he sought it because he wanted to be accepted like any regular guy. What made him special also isolated him. It’s an artistic paradox that goes back to the beginnings of mankind, but Williams is such a kind soul and his music is so honest that this particular cliché has a deeper resonance than you’d expect.
From beginning to end this documentary worked on every level I needed it to. There was some nostalgia, some insight, some fun, some tension, some laughs, some tears and some genuine human interaction that all pulls together and paints an authentic picture of a short man who is larger than life in every sense of the word.