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'Paul Williams Still Alive' trains the camera on the wrong guy

By Marc Savlov, 2:00PM, Tue. Oct. 16, 2012

Paul Williams (left) with Johnny Carson
Paul Williams (left) with Johnny Carson

If you don't recognize Paul Williams’ name, I have three words for you: "The Rainbow Connection."

Williams, a diminutive singer/songwriter who was ubiquitous in the 1970s and early 1980s, wrote that gently hopeful anthem for Jim Henson's The Muppet Movie in 1979. It is, by all accounts, one of the most recognized and beloved songs ever penned. (It's also one of the most covered: Willie Nelson, Dresden Dolls, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Sarah McLachlan, Justin Timberlake, and Weezer, just to name a smidge.)

But Williams was already a household name by then, having conjured Top 40 hits like Three Dog Night's "An Old Fashioned Love Song," the Carpenters' recording of "We've Only Just Begun," and "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)", the latter of which picked up a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and the Academy Award for Best Original Song. As if that weren't enough to blow your retro-mind, Williams also did the music for Henson's holiday hootenanny, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas." And, of course, he appeared on The Muppet Show itself .(In a separate episode, Debbie Harry sang – you guessed it – "The Rainbow Connection" as a duet with Kermit the Frog.)

Paul Williams was the epitome of the 1970s in more way than one, though. As his fame grew – nudged along by an appearance in Brian DePalma's masterfully warped Phantom of the Paradise – the roly-poly songwriter, with his signature, blow-dried blond coiffure, fell victim to drugs, alcohol, and the miasmatic toxicity of fame itself. By the time Eighties arrived, he was reduced to self-mocking buffoonery on television specials and game shows and eventually vanished from the public eye entirely. Many, including Paul Williams Still Alive director and childhood fan Stephen Kessler, assumed that Williams had died at some point. Not so. Williams, 17 years sober, has continued his career, albeit in a significantly denuded form: He's more likely to be found addressing a convention of drug and alcohol counselors, or performing his songs live to hundreds of still-adoring fans, who, like their idol, are all bit heavier around the middle, a bit less hirsute on top, but no less passionate about the music. (Turns out he's huge in the Philippines. Go figure.)

You'd think all of this is incredibly fertile ground for a classic, "Whatever happened to…?" documentary, but, astonishingly, Kessler's doc is less a portrait of Williams' cautionary tale than it is a study of the director's obsessive quest to rediscover the Williams of his youth. Kessler's fawning fanboy obsequiousness is grating in the extreme. Even Paul Williams isn't keen on having Kessler around, and the director's prominent role in the finished film is like something out of a particularly bizarro-world Seinfeld episode.

Kessler's clearly at loose ends, and Williams – and his wife – are just as often openly, vocally irritated by the borderline-canine deference the director pays to his childhood hero. It's a filmmaking strategy that never pays off. Although Williams' meteoric rise and eventual pop-cultural demise (enter The Gong Show) are well-enough sifted through, there's little to no examination of Williams interior life or discussion of what his future might bring. Paul Williams Still Alive is a strangely hollow documentary, as much about Kessler's ridiculous neuroses as it is about a very much living legend.

The Chronicle interviewed Paul Williams prior to his appearance at the SXSW 2012 Music Conference; see "War Stories From the Songwriting Battlefield With Paul Williams."

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