SXSW 2012: Paul Williams Still Alive

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Promotional image from Paul Williams Still Alive (Photo via SXSW)

Promotional image from Paul Williams Still Alive (Photo via SXSW)

On the surface, the new Paul Williams bio doc Paul Williams Still Alive seems like it could be just another one of those documentaries about an aging pop star’s downward spiral and subsequent redemption.

To some degree it is, but in Stephen Kessler’s moving film about the five-time Oscar-nominated songwriter, whose work includes “Rainbow Connection” (with Kenneth Ascher) and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” it turns out that the director plays an unexpectedly central role the subject’s storyline.

Kessler sought out only to film his childhood idol, a man he assumed was dead, to show the world how relevant he still is today.

Williams was not dead. The 71-year-old had merely chosen to step away from the spotlight to focus on his sobriety and his family. And even a cursory online search would reveal that Williams has been president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the performance rights management organization, since 2009.

In the first section of the film we see Williams’ reluctance and irritation with Kessler’s camera. Soon he’s confronting the director about the artificiality of the camera crew, goading the filmmaker to come out from behind the camera and join in him for their confessionals.

He does, and what results is a moving film and an unexpected friendship that, by the look of it, seems to have become quite deep. At public appearances throughout the screening schedule in Austin, the two had an easiness between them, finishing each others sentences. It was a striking contrast to the first sequences of the film.

In the clip below, film subject Paul Williams tells me about how what might end up on the cutting room floor became the documentary Paul Williams Still Alive.

At a SXSW Q&A, Williams provided more evidence that’s he’s still alive. He leaked an upcoming collaboration with the French electronic music duo Daft Punk.

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Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.