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Polyester sex symbol: Forgotten '70s icon Paul Williams is alive and kicking in revealing documentary

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Paul Williams Still Alive, director, Paul Williams
Director Stephen Kessler, left, and Paul Williams Paul Williams Still Alive/Facebook
Paul Williams Still Alive, at mic
Williams now plays gigs in hotel lounges and lesser Vegas casinos - and is happy about it.  Paul Williams Still Alive/Facebook
Paul Williams Still Alive, director, Paul Williams
Paul Williams Still Alive, at mic
Mondo Cinema, Paul Williams Still Alive, January 2013
Mondo Cineman, Paul Williams Still Alive, January 2013
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As a chubby New York kid growing up in Queens during the 1970s, filmmaker Stephen Kessler felt a special affinity with the cherubic Paul Williams, perhaps the least likely sex symbol of the Polyester Era, and deeply empathized with Williams’ songs about loneliness and longing.

Which is one reason why he wanted to make Paul Williams Still Alive, the revealing and rewarding documentary screening through Monday at 14 Pews. Another reason: He wanted to document the drug- and alcohol-fueled downfall of his childhood idol, and show how the faded superstar now was scraping by in relative obscurity.

But that wasn’t necessarily the story that Paul Williams wanted told. Because it was only partly true.

 When Kessler first approached him a few years back, Williams – 20 years sober, happy and happily married – felt he was too busy still living the life that Kessler wanted to document.  

When Kessler first approached him a few years back, Williams – 20 years sober, happy and happily married – felt he was too busy still living the life that Kessler wanted to document. When he wasn’t performing in concert – maybe not in the most prestigious of venues, but performing nevertheless – he was active as a spokesperson and fundraiser for organizations combating substance abuse. (He’s shown in that capacity at a Houston charity event during the documentary.)

And besides: If he did decide to rehash the past, Williams wasn’t sure whether he wanted Kessler as his traveling companion on a trip down Memory Lane. As the documentary makes vividly and sometimes uncomfortably clear: Kessler started out as a bit too eager to fix his subject in some preconceived scenario. And Williams occasionally bristled as he instinctively resisted facile labeling.

Paul Williams Still Alive is arresting and illuminating as it details the excesses, achievements and improbable endurance of its title subject. But the documentary’s chief focus turns out to be the often spirited give and take between subject and filmmaker, and the evolution of a wary collaboration into a warm friendship. Indeed, Williams half-jokingly suggests on camera that Kessler title the movie The Paul and Stevie Show.

They took their show on the road to the Toronto Film Festival for the world premiere of Paul Williams Still Alive. And that’s where I caught up with the dynamic duo.

CultureMap: There’s a fascinating dynamic at play throughout this documentary. At first, Paul, you seem very skeptical, if not downright incredulous. Like, “Why would you want to make a documentary about me?” And then, you appear uncomfortable about having to face the past — to, as you put it, poke the bear – and actually resent some of his questions.

Paul Williams: The thing is, when we went through all this footage and all that – some of this stuff is really so hard for me to watch. Like the tape of me guest-hosting The Merv Griffin Show – I look at that, and all I see is the grandiosity of this vapid, shallow little asshole, so stoned. I asked Steve: “How could you ever be a fan of that? How could you ever have cared about that?”

So what happened was, when we began to look at this stuff, he said right from the very beginning: “You don’t like something, you don’t want it to be in the movie, it won’t be in the movie.” But as it turned out, whatever I liked the least — it turned out that it had to be in the movie. He was right. And it took the entire process for me to get to the point where I could say, “You know what? You cannot appreciate my recovery until you can see how low I was. How bad it got.” And let me tell you: It got really, really bad.

The documentary’s chief focus turns out to be the often spirited give and take between subject and filmmaker, and the evolution of a wary collaboration into a warm friendship. 

CM: Of course, the funny thing is, somebody who was around in the ‘70s might have watched you on The Merv Griffin Show back then, and not thought there was anything excessive about your behavior because, well, it wasn’t exactly uncommon at the time.

Stephen Kessler: That is funny. You know, I did an early cut of the film where I showed a lot more of the early stuff that Paul did on TV. Certain jokes and stuff. And it almost seemed judgmental, looking back and viewing it now from this period of time. Like, today, you’d never say anything on TV like, “Just once, give me 20 minutes alone with Jodie Foster.” Back when Jodie Foster was, like, 14. But Paul said it then.

When I saw that, I was shocked. But then I did some more research, and looked at more tapes, and found myself saying, “Oh, look. There’s Burt Reynolds, and he’s also making a joke about having sex with a 14-year-old girl.” It was such a more permissive time. You joked about things then that you’d never joke about on TV today.

For me, it was so critical for me to show him drunk, show his drug use – but not be judgmental about it. So I had to take all that judgmental stuff out of the film.

CM: Another fascinating thing about the documentary is the way it focuses on the relationship, the give and take, between documentarian and subject. It’s almost a documentary about the making of a documentary.

Williams: For me, the film changes, and begins to become the film it is, when I stop on the street and say, “I’m sorry. As an actor, I can ignore the camera. As a singer, I can sing to it. But there’s this bullshit place in between that I can’t work in. If you’re going to ask me questions, come in here and talk to me.”

CM: So we see him actually on camera with you, interacting with you, throughout the movie. And we also see him sometimes pushing too hard, or asking indelicate questions.

Williams: And Steve was great about acknowledging that. Like when my conductor tells him, “What do you want me to do? You want me to dish the dirt? Well, I ain’t gonna do that.”  And he left that in there. To put things like that in there – I love that.

Kessler: And our relationship was such that, even as late as when we went to The Philippines – I really didn’t know if he even wanted me there. See, when I got to San Francisco, and he wouldn’t see me – I thought he’d be excited to see me. And when I went to Houston, and we got to his hotel room and he told me to get out – I really didn’t know what I was shooting, or what the movie would become.

Fortunately, I had this brilliant editor, David Zieff. He edited Crazy Love and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. And David worked on the story of this film a lot with me, getting to honest places, to find out what these scenes were really about. And that’s what the movie really is about.

And I realized that what I had to show was the arc of Paul’s distrust of me to illuminate who Paul is, now, as a human being. And how I came to realize, as I was shooting him, that the guy standing in front of me was really the guy I needed to talk about. Not the guy who I liked as a kid.

Williams: I’ve actually said that you could subtitle this film From Stalker to Brother. Because it goes from me not knowing exactly why this guy wants to do this, and I don’t want to go back to dwell in the past – I don’t want to poke the bear – to a really meaningful relationship where it became like therapy. Where it became a thing where I’m looking back at this crap and I’m hating it, and I can honestly tell him about it while the cameras are rolling.

I might tell him, “I don’t want my wife to see this. I don’t want my daughter to see this. This is horrible.” But then I got to the place where, yeah, I could see that without this, there wouldn’t be the third act at the end of the film.

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