The Paul Williams documentary will receive a theatrical release in June from Abramorama, the company that distributed "Pearl Jam Twenty," "Anvil!" and "Neil Young Trunk Show," director Stephen Kessler said Monday.
Kessler's warm and engaging "Paul Williams Still Alive" had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is screening at SXSW. Unique in its set-up, the film becomes a buddy movie as filmmaker and subject learn how to deal with one another as each attempts to impose their will on the other. Along the way, Kessler shifts his initial focus from a fan hoping to document Williams the songwriter to an artist having a relationship with another artist whose later chapter in life is different than the earlier ones, but just as rewarding.
"I started out to make a film for people who didn't know who Paul Williams was because I felt Paul Williams' music shouldn't get lost," Kessler tells Billboard. "As I got to know him, the story of who he became over the course of his life was an even bigger story than the preservation of his music. I needed to do both at the same time. I started with 'hey do you know this guy who wrote the greatest song ever about depression?' ("Rainy Days and Mondays"). But it turned into something much bigger. I think that's what makes this a movie-going experience as opposed to a (TV) documentary."
Williams, an Oscar and Grammy winner, was recently elected to his second term as president of ASCAP and on Thursday he will celebrate 22 years of sobriety. In addition to lobbying for the rights of songwriters and copyright owners, he is also a respected speaker on substance abuse recovery.
Kessler opts to show himself attempting to get Williams to accept him as a filmmaker while intermittently telling the Williams story that kicks into high gear when he pens hits for the Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand and Helen Reddy before launching a solo career that hits a high with "Rainbow Connection" and "The Muppets." His life becomes one of celebrity rather than of a song craftsman as he makes the rounds on "The Tonight Show," "Match Game," "Gong Show" and others, plunging deep into alcoholism.
"So much of this film is what usually winds up on the cutting room floor," Williams says. "It's the process of building this relationship."
After his initial shoot, Kessler assembled a 20-minute reel to show to friends the direction of his film. They quickly shot it down, telling him that he needed to become a character in the film because he was the crazy fan following Williams around when no one else was. Kessler winds up accompanying Williams to the Philippines, Las Vegas, San Francisco and even an old storage unit to make his own connection.
"Once I started putting that in, I found the best way to illuminate who Paul is now was by using me as a counterpoint and see how he accepts me into his life, which says a lot about who he is," Kessler says.
"I feel like I intuitively had a feeling about where he might go because I was so familiar with his lyrics. Paul's lyrics were very honest. When you work with an actor, all you've ever seen of the actor before you meet him is the facade and the characters. Working with a songwriter, you've seen inside them already. That's one reason I thought this (film) could potentially be a good idea."
In the film, Williams is shown doing a fair amount of slapstick comedy on television in the 1970s. Defending some of his choices, Williams speculates that it is possible that a more serious songwriter such as Paul Simon could have possibly wanted to be more like him - a bit goofier and carefree -- rather than vice versa.
The film ends with Williams singing a new song, "Still Alive" over the start of the credits. At Sunday's screening, a long stretch of silence followed the conclusion of his new song and Williams found a way to break the tension: He started singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The audience roared.
- SXSW