August 28, 2012

The story behind the story of ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’

By Joe C.

In a very different era of celebrity, Paul Williams was a very different celebrity. the turn of the century, director Stephen Kessler was looking to purchase an old record by this 1970s icon. “I always thought it was such a shame that Paul Williams died so early.” says Kessler. “But while I was searching on iTunes, I was stunned to find out that he was still alive.”

If you are from the Generation X or Millennium era, you probably don’t know Paul Williams, but he was more iconic then, than Lady Gaga or Justin Beiber are now, in 2012.

Kessler found that Williams was not only still alive but performing in Winnipeg, Canada, so he grabbed his passport and went to see him with the idea that the whole world wanted to know the story of Paul Williams. Williams really didn’t think so.

Kessler kept at him and kept his camera shooting. Five years later, in 2011, the documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and continued the festival circuit including South By South West in Spring 2012. As positive reviews grew louder, the documentary enjoyed a limited theatrical release through Summer 2012and now prepares for its DVD release. Without intending to, Stephen Kessler, a film and music buff, has prophetically revealed a truth about recovery that he could not have known—“We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.”

“I missed a whole decade when I hit bottom,” Williams tells Renew. “Back then, someone said, ‘You remember President Reagan don’t you?’ and I said, ‘Don’t you mean actor Ronald Reagan?’” Paul says he hit bottom in the early 1990s and now has been clean and sober 22 years. Grateful for how life worked out, Paul pays back what was freely given to him.

Kessler’s Paul Williams was a short and chubby underdog from the 1960s, working odd jobs as he dreamed of being in movies and writing hit songs. That Paul Williams hit the jackpot. His first No. 1 hit, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” was recorded by The Carpenters. “Old Fashioned Love Song” was picked up by Three Dog Night.  TV came calling to write a theme-song for Love Boat. Success begat more success with regular guest spots on the most popular TV series, talk shows, game shows and big-budget silver screen projects like “Planet of the Apes,” “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Phantom of the Paradise.”

Many documentaries crescendo with an epiphany of the protagonist of the film—a coming to terms. Not this flick. “Paul Williams Still Alive” concludes with the filmmaker’s epiphany. We watch the gradual realization that Kessler’s childhood idol had it all, but happiness eluded him. Now, Williams seems to have so much less according to the superficial measure of making it big; but, he’s happy.

“Paul is so Zen about who he is now. He has no thirst to relive past glory.” Kessler said later, looking back on the project.

“I am busy ruining the end of your film,” Williams says into the camera during the documentary, laughing from his belly. “You see, I don’t spend my time longing for the past. I am excited about the future.”

Click here to read Joe's one-on-one exclusive interview, “Renew Conversations: Paul Williams.”

Documentary viewers follow Kessler to the end of his journey, as he follows Williams to a storage locker for what Kessler is still thinking is the leprechaun’s pot of gold: boxes and boxes of VHS footage of the glory days. At the end of the documentary Kessler narrates his realization. “Paul never even asked, ‘What did you find in there?’ He never even asked to get them back.”

Joe C. is currently putting the final touches on Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, the first daily reflection book for nonbelievers, due out Dec.1, 2012. Click here to learn more about Joe.

Image courtesy of Wendy L. Rombough.

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