I first became aware of the man in 1970, as composer of what to this very day remains my absolute favorite Three Dog Night tune, “Out In The Country.”
Then, in the years to follow, that same man would somehow become downright ubiquitous upon the 25 living-color inches of the family RCA XL-100. On variety and game shows galore, on The Tonight Show of course (forty-eight times!), even trying to murder Police Woman Angie Dickinson. All as some form of mutant, leisure-suited hybrid of David Cassidy and adorable Cousin Oliver.
Then, as did most pre-punk cultural icons in the immediate wake of that first Ramones album, Paul Williams seemed to vanish overnight from the audio/visual airwaves; a figment, perhaps, of our Top Forty, prime time past; an aberration, beloved as it may have been, from antiquated, tube-powered memory.
What defiantly remained however, losing not one single iota of their insidious appeal over all these decades since, was his string of perfectly crafted, instantly and forever recognized pure pop chestnuts – “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Evergreen,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” the Love Boat and Boy in the Plastic Bubble themes for example; need I cite any more? – which still have the innate power to bore deep within our craniums and keep us shimmying, boogieing, or at least grinning into infinity. Why, he even constructed the, um, “so close to terrible and yet somehow believable” songs for Ishtar’s ballbusting Beatty and Hoffman duo: “It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never had more fun on a picture, but I’ve never worked harder.”
Fun and bubble boys aside though, it looked, and certainly sounded as if this wealth of utterly brilliant four-minute, five-chord monuments to the middle of the road were all that would remain of Paul Williams’ legacy; perhaps even his epitaph.
Until, that is, a man named Stephen Kessler arose.
A through-and-through true child of the Seventies (“I still get excited when I see the words Hungry Man TV Dinner!”) who was raised in the cathode shadow of Danny Partridge twenty-six feet from the Long Island Rail Road – and to this day unabashedly claims he always wanted to be Paul Williams – Stephen decided to go one giant step further than simply wondering where his idol went. He picked up a camera, assembled a film crew, and hit the asphalt in search of his “friend from the television.”
The result is a truly touching, yet at times emotionally gut-wrenching documentary that really could only be called Paul Williams: Still Alive. In oh so many ways it is a story of fame from a “morning after” perspective, yes, but with a (gasp) happy ending. I mean, after all, we are talking about the man who taught Kermit how to find the Rainbow Connection.
And therein’s not only the rub, but the proverbial key to Still Alive’s impact and success as a film. Forgoing the typical confrontational guerilla style of a Michael Moore or TMZ, Kessler approaches his subject first with wonderment – at the 2006 “Phantompalooza” Festival in Winnipeg, one of only two cities in the world, the other being Paris, where the Brian De Palma / Paul Williams epic Phantom Of The Paradise was a box office smashapalooza. But then we watch that wonder turn to curiosity, soon enough respect, and ultimately not so much empathy or even sympathy as an understanding with and obvious kinship for his subject matter.
Equally as curious was Paul Williams’ sudden decision, after filming had already begun, to go ALL the way, cinematically and otherwise and bring Steve, with lens, totally into his life and world for nigh on five entire years. A world which in many ways, good and bad – mainly good, though – is much, much different today than it was back in those glory years spent collaborating with De Palma and The Muppets …or mired deep within the Battle for the Planet of the Apes for that matter.
“We’ll make it The Paulie and Steve Show!” the former, in true Little Enos Burdette bravado, insisted after bonding with Kessler one day over garlic pepper squid at Thai House Express. In a “keep your enemies closer” mode, perhaps? Whatever the cases may be, there goes a newly emboldened Steve, following his leading man backstage, eavesdropping on him checking emails and doing throat exercises from hotel hallways, and ultimately becoming a quite unwilling participant on Paul’s especially harrowing post-9/11 tour of the Philippines, which is indeed every bit as Apocalypse Now as it is “An Old Fashioned Love Song.” “Safe and scenic, safe and scenic,” the local promoter continually insists upon packing all involved onto a six-hour bus haul through the treacherous – especially according to U.S. State Department warnings – Mindanao jungle between gigs. But once securely back on a California golf course a few weeks later, for all his terror-fuelled troubles, Stephen is rewarded with an actual sleep-over chez Williams! That includes bed and breakfast.
Then, later, the motherlode: Paul actually lets his chronicler loose in a storage locker filled with memorabilia …including over 600 hours of VHS tape. Then lets him take home, and USE, anything he wants.
Stretching all the way back to Paul’s on-screen debut in 1965 as a twenty-four-year-old child actor alongside Jonathan Winters in The Loved One, that exhumed footage, as fascinating and kitschily coated as much of it may be, honestly never once manages to overwhelm or even upstage the sight of the renewed, revitalized 21st Century Williams. No, The Paulie and Steve Show more than holds its own against vintage clips from Bugsy Malone or even Baretta, such is the unmistakable, undeniable buddy-charm which “director” and “star” grow between them as Still Alive spins out its rollercoasting eighty-four minutes.
Cue “You and Me Against The World,” and fade to Bonus Footage.
P.S.: And if you haven’t gathered as much already, I’m most pleased to report our unflappable hero remains, on the eve of his 79th (!!) birthday September 19, happy, healthy, and ultra-productive. Since 2009 Paul has guilelessly served as President and Chairman of the Board of ASCAP, keeps his own songwriting chops sharp (on the Scissor Sisters and Richard Barone for example) while proudly keeping his goldie oldies alive on stage, co-authored the New York Times Relationships Bestseller “Gratitude and Trust” (“the two rails my choo-choo runs on”), continues the good fight to get Phantom Of The Paradise mounted at long last upon the Broadway stage, and graciously savors each and every sincere and loving “heart payment” he receives back from folks both known and unknown the world over – yes, even deep within the Filipino jungle – in recognition of his beautifully sculpted, musical lyrical body of work.
See? I told you this story has a happy ending!
Or, as the man himself explains, “I didn’t have the best childhood, but I had the longest.” Words to remain Still Alive to, yessir, for lovers, dreamers, you and me.