Paul Williams wins a Grammy in 2014 for his collaboration on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Photo by Allen J Schaben, Los Angeles
Before you think this has turned into a Paul Williams Stalker Blog, let me give you a little bit of background. Matt Casarino (friend, playwright, singer-songwriter, performer and half of the band HOT BREAKFAST!) and I have been discussing the Paul Williams documentary, Still Alive.
It stuck in our craw, collectively, as you might say. Were this a dog park, the documentary would be that weird tree root sticking up out of the beaten earth that we both kept sniffing, chewing, and trying to pull out, before realizing it was stuck to something much more insidious.
As dogs will, we are compelled to keep gnawing and pulling at that tree root until it sticks up out of the ground, and let the sun and rain hit it, until it grows leaves.
I think what’s frustrating both of us is that Kessler had the opportunity to interview Paul Williams, a person who tapped into the collective unconscious and spun out some amazing songs, and he dropped it. Matt and I both wish we could get a Google Hangout interview with Williams, to ask the really important questions (just how sleazy were the infamous El Sleezo dancing girls?) and just listen and let the man talk, for crying out loud. What’s the science of his songwriting? What’s the process? True, there’s no specific formula to make something that tugs at your emotions, but Williams’ decades of work is close to Joseph Campbell’s decades of study of myth.
Matt Casarino on stage at The Baby Grand, Wilmington, DE
Initially, when I saw the movie and it bothered me, I started to write an e-mail to Matt about it. Matt knows the science of what makes pop songs and stories engaging, so I wanted to know his thoughts about the movie. Then I really got on my high horse and posted my rant publicly. Matt wrote me back, and was kind enough to allow me to post his continuation of the conversation here.
Both of us feel like this movie misses a point. Matt showed me that it hits another, very interesting mark.
Without further ado: this just in from Casarino.
The first 45 minutes of Still Alive are maddening. Frustrating as all get-out.
I understand documentaries can be as much about the filmmaker as the subject – whether or not they’re seen on-camera, the director/editor is the one shaping the narrative into the story they want us to see. But while a little personal context is fine, good LORD, man, you’ve got one of the most interesting fellows in the world in front of you, and you’re talking about yourself? Shut up, step aside, and let Williams talk.
My frustration reached its apex during the Vegas scene. After a few awkward shots of Paul’s wife, we see shots of her repeatedly interrupting the band rehearsal to ask the musicians how many comps they want as an annoyed Williams looks on. I turned to Jill and said “this is bullshit. It’s a cheap shot. Kessler is deceptively editing the film to make her look intrusive.” This was followed by Kessler’s v/o, as he opines that Williams is clearly annoyed that his wife is ruining this trip.
That’s when it hit me – I’ve been duped. Kessler isn’t clueless. It’s not just this scene that’s unfairly edited – it’s the whole movie. He’s doing this on purpose. He’s painting himself as a dopey, gooey-eyed fan, and purposefully leaving in all the shots “normal” documentaries leave out – the awkward and uncomfortable confrontations, the sideways glances given to increasingly intrusive cameras. He’s going behind the scenes of his own movie.
And with this method, he ends up showing us a side of Paul we otherwise never would have seen.
He could have given us a sitting-on-a-couch documentary, in which Paul takes us through his life, his various projects, his process, his highs & lows, all that stuff. That would have been very satisfying, honestly, because Paul is a fascinating man and has spent decades learning how to charm the camera. But we wouldn’t know Paul like we do now. We wouldn’t see the very real, often deeply uncomfortable moments when Paul is just barely too polite to tell Steve to go eat a handful of crap. We wouldn’t see an exhausted Paul telling Steve he’s all “Paul Williamsed out,” or telling Steve his questions are condescending and insulting. Those are real, honest moments, and very telling.
And they never would have worked in a “normal” documentary. They would have been jarring, making Paul come off as irritable, unpleasant, ungrateful. But here, we get it. We cannot believe this drip is botching his Paul Williams documentary, a movie he’s lucky to be making. When Paul’s values overtake his courtesy and he incredulously calls out Steve for being shitty, we’re on his side. It’s a great moment, albeit terrifically hard to watch. But if Steve were “invisible,” if the movie was more of a talking head documentary, that moment would make Paul appear irritable and combative. But because we’re as exasperated as Williams, we see a man determined to be present, to accept his past without regretting it. Paul’s not telling us how he feels – he’s showing us. Remarkable.
And Steve takes the hit. He lets himself be comically obtuse, mistaking Paul’s obvious sarcasm for an actual invitation. He lets Williams and his wife glare at Kessler and the camera with a sort of polite contempt. He’s a simpering wuss in the Phillipines, whining about the food and terrorists. He asks jerky questions that seem designed not to provoke answers, but to make Williams feel bad. Christ, he even dresses like a drip, with his oversized, droopy t-shirts, wrinkled pants, and stooped posture. Doesn’t he know he’s in a movie?
But by being the bad guy, he lets Williams be the good guy. That incredible moment at the end, when Williams watches a video of his coked-up 1983 persona with horror, absolute disgust, and embarrassment? That probably couldn’t have happened in a “normal” documentary. In this one, where the jerky filmmaker has been pushing for this moment for years and Williams has been resisting it, it becomes the entire point. It reveals the soul of Paul Williams.
Now, this revelation doesn’t mean I loved the movie. It’s still kind of hacky. Kessler lays it on way too thick, especially in his v/o that opens the movie, when he tells us how much Paul meant to him as a child. He overplays his hand, becoming so unlikable that the movie itself turns off-putting when it should be riveting. And he can’t resist unnecessary, gratuitous intrusions, like the campy clip from The Karen Carpenter Story. Even if his indulgence is a put-on, it’s still indulgence, and often maddening.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of Paul Williams playing a piano? Here, he’s at least got his hands on one, in Brian de Palma’s film Phantom of the Paradise.
Worst of all, the doc really doesn’t spend enough time on Williams’ extraordinary life. I get that Paul isn’t interested in telling old war stories, but there are some important questions that need to be asked. Who first noticed that he was a good songwriter? What movies mean something to him? What songs mean something to him? Who else does he admire? What was it like filming Phantom of the Paradise and The Muppet Show? How did he get sober, and how does he stay that way? What of his family, his children? The portrait of Paul Williams is incomplete without these questions answered. I suspect the middle ground between the vérité doc we got and the This-is-Your-Life doc we wanted is amazing.
But I still like the movie. I find Williams more fascinating, and wonderful, than ever. I want to be his friend, his confidant. And you know what? Now I don’t want to know certain things. I don’t want to know the lurid details of his drug habit. I don’t want to know his songwriting process. I don’t want to know how he channels sadness and depression into his work.
Well – I do want to know those things, but now I don’t think they’re any of my business. Now that I’ve seen Still Alive, I’d rather give him a little space, let him think about his next golf game and where he might want to take his family on vacation.
If I were writing soundbites, I’d say something like “Still Alive isn’t the Paul Williams biography you want, but it’s the one you need.” Thank Cthulhu I’m not a soundbite writer, because that makes me want to stab myself in the nipple. Instead, I’ll say this: I’m glad I saw Still Alive. I like this Paul Williams – a wonderful old guy who’s been through hell (and heaven) and still performs to make a living while helping thousands of people get and stay sober, a guy who’s lost more than he’s won but is happy with what he has. I’d still like to smack Steve Kessler on the back of the head for all the opportunities he missed, but I’d also like to thank him for letting me meet the real Paul.
It’s very true that Still Alive inverts traditional documentary conventions, to make us rethink privacy, loneliness and intimacy, particularly when those things are pushed against fame. I’m grateful to have friends like Matt, with whom I can have these conversations.