I recently had the unexpected pleasure of seeing Paul Williams. Yes, THAT Paul Williams. The prolific, Oscar- and Grammy-winning ’70s pop composer (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Evergreen,” “You and Me Against the World,” “Rainbow Connection,” “Theme from ‘The Love Boat,” and many more). His name caught my attention in eighth grade, when I was starting to discover songwriters and learned that it was he who had written hits by different performers I liked. I even bought one of his albums. But then he embarked on a singing and acting career and became one of the most ubiquitous personalities on ’70s TV, appearing on the Carson “Tonight Show” nearly 50 times, numerous other talk shows (Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore), game shows (“Hollywood Squares”), crime dramas (he got into a shooting match with Angie Dickinson), sitcoms, and even “Circus of the Stars” (where he jumped out of a plane). I’m sorry, but this was just too much Paul for me, and I started to tune him out.
Until seeing the new documentary, Paul Williams: Still Alive, I never paid much attention to the person behind the stocky, five-foot-two frame, shaggy hair, tinted aviator specs, glib personality, and warbly voice. His story has the usual elements: childhood loneliness, need for acceptance, rise to A-list fame and fortune, fading star, descent into alcohol and drugs, rehab, triumph (he has been sober for 25 years), and contentment upon finally finding and accepting his place in the world.
But what makes this film so compelling is that it was made by a fan of my generation who became a successful director. Although it breaks the rule that a documentarian should not inject himself into his work, the developing bond between filmmaker and subject (Stephen Kessler followed Williams, his childhood hero, for three years) proved to be a worthy secondary story. That Williams would open himself up to a stranger, and the warm friendship that developed, give the documentary a more informal, personal dimension than Ken Burns’ best work, without Michael Moore-style political messages. Kessler admits to once wanting to be Paul Williams, and I found myself wanting to be Kessler — to follow a childhood hero and become buddies with him. How cool is that! “Still Alive” is a serious work, but neither Williams nor Kessler takes himself seriously, resulting in candid, funny, heartwarming moments, not to mention the film’s self-deprecating title.
I was intrigued by the coverage of Williams’ acceptance of an invitation to perform in, of all places, Mindanao in the southern Philippines — the notorious part of the country that American tourists are urged to avoid because of Al Qaeda threats. Fortunately, not only did the 8,000-mile trek proceed terror-free (including the six-hour bus ride through a jungle), but Williams felt much love from throngs of fans in this far-off land, known for its affinity for sweet, sentimental music. He had flown back to the ’70s.
As if the film weren’t remarkable enough, what followed was a live Q&A with Williams himself, now a fit 71, and director Kessler. The audience at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago was mostly middle-aged, but there were also seniors and kids, including an 11-year-old who asked the diminutive composer whom he admired growing up (Paul’s answer: Mickey Rooney, because he was short, famous, and still got the girl). The graciousness, honesty, humor, wisdom, dignity, and warmth emanating from the stage exceeded my expectations. I learned that Williams’ lyrics about loneliness, heartache, and hope really did come from his heart, and that he continues to be gratified by the connection that millions feel to his songs.
In just two hours, I grew from simply enjoying Williams’ work to admiring him, and in some ways even identifying with him. Before I go to bed tonight, I think I’ll play my piano-bar rendition of “Rainy Days and Mondays.” There’s still hope for me yet.