Doc’s prickly sub­ject proves re­luc­tant to ex­am­ine past

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Ran­dall King

AS a jour­nal­is­tic genre, Paul Wil­liams Still Alive is a where-are-they-now? story. It catches up with a celebrity, once ubiq­ui­tous on TV, ra­dio and/or movies (all three, in Wil­liams’ case), now for­got­ten.

But of course, in Win­nipeg, Paul Wil­liams will be re­mem­bered for­ever as one of the stars and the song­writer of the 1974 cult film Phan­tom of the Par­adise. Writer-di­rec­tor Stephen Kessler (a long­time com­mer­cial di­rec­tor with Ve­gas Va­ca­tion and his own cult film, The In­de­pen­dent to his credit), upon dis­cov­er­ing Wil­liams was very much alive in 2006, flew to Win­nipeg to meet his boy­hood idol when Wil­liams par­tic­i­pated in the Phan­tom fan con­ven­tion Phan­tom­palooza II.

From there, Paul Wil­liams Still Alive turns into a dou­ble odyssey, go­ing back­ward and for­ward in time. As a teen, Kessler closely iden­ti­fied with Wil­liams’ lonely mu­si­cal mi­lieu ( Rainy Days and Mon­days) yet found him an in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure for his abil­ity to be the life of the party on many talk shows, es­pe­cially Johnny Car­son’s Tonight Show, where Wil­liams logged more than 50 ap­pear­ances.

He does his best to be­friend Wil­liams and suc­ceeds in spite of him­self. Af­ter Phan­tom­palooza, Kessler trailed in Wil­liams’ diminu­tive shadow off and on for years.

But ex­am­in­ing Wil­liams’ ca­reer proves to be dif­fi­cult. Like many of his con­tem­po­raries, Wil­liams suc­cumbed to drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion. But un­like many of his con­tem­po­raries, he cleaned him­self up to the point of ac­tu­ally be­com­ing an ad­dic­tions coun­sel­lor. Un­der­stand­ably, Wil­liams would rather en­joy his mod­est, en­joy­able life as it is now be­cause the past is painful — and be­sides, as he tells Kessler: “I am so over talk­ing about Paul Wil­liams.”

In doc­u­ment­ing Wil­liams’ past, Kessler makes Di­rected by Stephen Kessler Cine­math­eque PG 92 min­utes

out of five stun­ningly good use of clips. One of Wil­liams’ big breaks was when the Car­pen­ters recorded his song We’ve Only Just Be­gun. Kessler sum­ma­rizes the moment with a clip from a go­daw­ful TV movie, The Karen Car­pen­ter Story, show­ing an ac­tor as Richard Car­pen­ter grooving to the bank com­mer­cial on which the song was first heard, while Mrs. Car­pen­ter (Louise Fletcher) tries to set­tle her son down by of­fer­ing him Quaaludes. The com­bi­na­tion of mu­sic, drugs and cheesy melo­drama not only il­lus­trates the turn­ing point in the song­writer’s life, it is a suc­cinct sum­mary of the cul­ture in which Wil­liams would op­er­ate in the ’70s and ’80s.

An­other clip of The Mike Dou­glas Show presents Wil­liams in co-host­ing du­ties in­tro­duc­ing an ap­pallingly high Peter Law­ford. In the present, Wil­liams ex­plains that Law­ford asked to be in­vited be­cause he wanted to score some par­tic­u­larly good co­caine while in Philadel­phia. (This is a movie that can in­duce shock at what you might have missed in the TV of the ’70s.)

By turns, ab­sorb­ing, funny, mov­ing and cringein­duc­ing, this is a movie demon­strat­ing Wil­liams could be cel­e­brated as much for his hard-won wis­dom as for his song­writ­ing abil­i­ties.

It is a warts-and-all view of Wil­liams, but Kessler gets as good as he gives, ex­pos­ing a few warts of his own.

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