Film Capsule: Paul Williams: Still Alive

Paul Williams cut an odd figure way back in the mid 70s – all poppin’ collars and cranberry suits, amber-vision glasses and gut-busting waistline. Williams was all of 5’2, with chubby cheeks and golden locks, kind of like what Edgar Winter would look like if a warehouse safe somehow landed on his head.

But that was then, and this is now.

Now, Paul Williams looks kind of like a wise and aging mogwai. And, what’s more, he’s 22 years sober. Both of these things help form the basis of Paul Williams: Still Alive – a charming documentary that follows Williams in real-time as he plays unremarkable gigs in Winnipeg, the Philippines, and the barren outskirts of Las Vegas.

The documentary paints a compelling portrait, to be sure. And it explains a great deal about why Williams seemed to have completely fallen off the map so many moons ago. But it falls short in the sense that it never really digs beneath the surface to dish the dirt on just how bad off Williams really was at one point, and how hard he had to fight and claw to will himself through recovery.

This is the meat and potatoes of how Paul Williams got to where he is today … a much healthier, less-recognizable shadow of his former self. And this is sadly missing from a documentary that seems much more preoccupied with unnecessary minutia, like Paul’s undying love of squid and the filmmaker’s ridiculous fear of traveling in the Philipines.

The problem here is (Director) Stephen Kessler’s fanboy allegiance to Williams, his acute fear of upsetting the man by attempting to ask anything the least bit daring, and his sheer unwillingness to risk their new-born friendship by challenging Williams to explain any of the broader issues that really matter most.

The whole thing comes full-circle in the end, and there are some really heart-felt moments during those closing minutes … moments during which Williams is forced to confront what a spiraling mess he was just before he hit rock bottom. But it’s far too late at that point. The film has already wasted a great deal of its time waxing eloquent about a fascinating icon from the 70s who somehow managed to fall so deep and hard down the rabbit hole, a great deal of us very naturally assumed he was dead.

(Paul Williams: Still Alive opens in limited release in major markets across the country this coming Friday.)