The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Paul Williams

As a small child in the 1970's, I could not escape Paul Williams. He penned “The Rainbow Connection” for a film I loved, The Muppet Movie. Other tunes he wrote – including the Carpenters' “We've Only Just Begun” and Barbra Streisand's “Evergreen” - were perpetually on the radio. He repeatedly popped up on television shows such as “Match Game,” “The Gong Show,” and “The Tonight Show,” as well as afternoon chat programs hosted by the likes of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. He starred in Brian DePalma's sublime The Phantom of the Paradise. Williams was, to my eyes, the very personification of Show Business. Director Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation) had a very similar experience, as evidenced by the opening minutes of his documentary Paul Williams Still Alive, in which he confesses an identical childhood fascination with the man.

Williams has had an unusual career, and Kessler knows his film therefore needs an unusual approach. He inserts himself into the story, showing us how he attempts to get his reluctant subject to open up by following him around the world, including on a dangerous detour through the jungles of the Philippines. Now reduced to playing hotel lounges and casinos at the far end of the Las Vegas strip, Williams nevertheless seems quite happy. He's married, has years of sobriety under his belt, and still has loyal fans turn out to see him perform. Kessler presses him for details about his past – the drug use, his failed first marriage, his show-biz ubiquity. Williams somewhat testily says he doesn't want to talk about these things. But then he does anyway, proving to be astonishingly eloquent in his self-reflection.

What we're left with is a portrait of a man who, at some level, regrets who he was in the prime of his career. Despite a less opulent lifestyle these days, Williams insists he has “more” because he's actually happy. The most powerful sequence in the film finds Kessler finally managing to get him to watch some videotapes from the '70s. He cues up an on-air breakdown Williams had while guest hosing a talk show – one in which the star, clearly coked out of his mind, confesses his drug use and infidelity. Watching it now, Williams squirms, then insists the tape be shut off.

Paul Williams Still Alive is a rather unique portrait of celebrity. It peels back the curtain to show a darker side. Williams was once one of the most famous men in the world, yet it clearly brought him little happiness. He seems to look back on himself with a certain amount of disgust. More than the Oscar and the Grammy, he sees a guy caught up in the business of being “fabulous.” It now seems disingenuous to him. Williams is happier being sober, doing side work as a substance abuse counselor, and playing smaller venues, where he can be the real Paul Williams and not a show business caricature.

Always intriguing and often quite funny, Paul Williams Still Alive is exactly the documentary this celebrity deserves. It's respectful of his extraordinary accomplishments while giving us an accurate portrait of who Williams is today. With a short 87-minute running time, certain things from his career get the short shrift, most notably his performance in The Phantom of the Paradise, a film that has gone on to achieve significant cult status. Still, I came away with an appreciation for just how shrewdly the former poster boy for mega-celebrity has reinvented himself as a sincere, down-to-earth person.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: Paul Williams Still Alive is available via on demand platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and more.

Paul Williams Still Alive is rated PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.

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