Recovery and Gratitude
Jun 25, 2012
The premise established at the beginning of director Stephen Kessler's documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive, is a gag. Kessler, narrating over archival clips of Williams in his heyday, laments that the Oscar-winning songwriter died too young. He expresses a kinship with Williams and eulogizes his talents before sharing the discovery that Williams is—surprise—alive and well. For those under the age of 30, or anyone who saw Williams sit in with The Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon just a year ago, the joke might fall flat. But for those who remember Williams' ubiquity on TV in the 1970s—awards shows, talk shows, guest starring appearances on anything from Police Woman to The Muppet Show—the assumption that he had died wouldn't be all that far-fetched. Williams receded from the spotlight in the 1980s while succumbing to addiction.
When Kessler approached Williams five years ago to make this documentary, Williams was dubious, and that's caught in the footage. Early on, the songwriter is visibly reticent to dig up the past in interviews or be followed around by cameras. In time, Kessler earned his trust, and Williams, 17 years sober at the time, saw it as an opportunity to bring attention to his work on the speaking circuit discussing recovery.
For Williams, the linchpin of the film is a scene where Kessler shows him an old tape of him guest hosting The Merv Griffin Show. Williams recognizes himself as high on drugs in the footage and, disgusted with it, has to walk away from the monitor. "It's the most vapid, arrogant little bastard I've ever seen in my life," Williams says now. "I cannot believe I could ever be like that and not even know how I was coming off." Williams had an agreement with Kessler that he could veto the inclusion of anything in the film, and initially he did not want that scene or the Merv Griffin Show footage included. "But when I saw the film, the first rough cut," Williams explains, "with that in, you get the message of recovery, the fact that there's hope for the hopeless."
Williams' songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to David Bowie and R.E.M. In the '70s, he gained renown for writing or co-writing hits for The Carpenters ("We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days and Mondays"), Barbara Streisand ("Evergreen"), and The Muppets ("Rainbow Connection"). He appeared in and composed the score for the Brian DePalma-directed rock opera film, Phantom of the Paradise, and wrote the hilariously bad songs for the Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman comedy, Ishtar. Though neither film was received well upon release, both enjoy a prominent cult following today. In a 2010 interview with Under the Radar, Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara discussed how the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack made an impression on her as a child.
These days, Williams, 71, is passionate about two things: recovery and music creators' rights. In 2009, two years after filming of the documentary began, he was elected president of ASCAP. Last week, Under the Radar spoke to Williams about the documentary, songwriting, Ishtar and recent collaborations.
Chris Tinkham: I don't know whether, in the film, Stephen (Kessler) is playing up the stalker-like qualities of him following you around, but how long did it take for you to decide that his intentions were legit and that something good might come out of all of this?
Paul Williams: I think on some unconscious level, I always suspected he was not really a horrible person. I agreed to let him come up to shoot Phantompalooza, and my ulterior motive was, I thought he might get fascinated with Phantom of the Paradise and shoot about that instead of about me. Where it really changed is when we went to the Philippines. There's a scene in the movie, where he's in my dressing room in the Philippines, and he says in the voice over, "I didn't care that Paul Williams was there." And he's scared, he's hungry and he thinks that al-Qaeda's gonna get him. When he sunk to that level of interest in me, all of a sudden I could see him.
For how long was he shooting you?
He shot off and on for about three-and-a-half years. I think I was 17 years sober at the time, and I'm 22 now, so it's been more than five years. But it wasn't every day. Every time he put a mic on me, I could feel something almost, especially at the beginning, just want to shut down. You know, just like, "I don't want to do this again. Why do you need a movie about Paul Williams? Who cares?" Eventually, what he made a movie about is more than just me.
The song you wrote for this film, "Still Alive," is terrific. Had the title for the film been decided when you wrote the song?
Yeah, I actually wrote the title song defensively. They wanted to call it Paul Williams Still Alive, and I went, "Oh, man,"—I still have a little bit of ego—"do you think everybody thought I was dead?" A huge part of the message of the song, for me, is about my gratitude, because too many souls—Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, and in some ways I think Rodney King—addiction and alcoholism have taken so many of my friends, so many talented people and continue to. So, "Still Alive" had a larger significance to me: the dreamer's still alive. The title offered a chance to express my gratitude for where I am in this process of recovery.
There have been numerous films about musicians and songwriters, both fiction and documentary, but I don't know one film that depicts the compulsion and difficulty of the songwriting process better than Ishtar.
[Laughs] Thank you. I took a method approach to that. I cast half of myself as Chuck and half of myself as Lyle and really tried to approach it honestly, as a method actor playing a songwriter that's— It's not that he's bad, it's just they kinda miss the mark and they're a bad mix. One will say something that the other one likes, and they talk each other into things that aren't quite right, and I wanted to write totally believable bad songs. I wanted them to write things where they miss things that are obvious to the audience—Dustin Hoffman singing to a couple on their 60th wedding anniversary, he writes a song called "I'm Leaving Some Love in My Will." There's stuff that isn't in the film that is my favorite. There's one called "Carol." The best part that didn't make it in the picture was a bridge that said, "There'll be no motion sickness on the roller coaster ride/No abandoned puppies and no best friends that died." [Laughs]
Has it not been released on DVD?
We're hoping at some point they'll release it. We did a full-blown rock 'n' roll version of all the songs, it was supposed to be released as a soundtrack album. When the reviews came in, everyone just backed away at Columbia, and Warren and everybody. I'm really proud of the work, and Quentin Tarantino owns a print of the film. He loves the film.
In an interview I did with Tegan and Sara a couple years ago, Sara mentioned how she and her sister were obsessed with the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack when they were kids. This would have been in the mid-'80s. Have younger artists in recent years had the opportunity to tell you how your music has made an impression on them?
Absolutely. I got an email from Scissor Sisters and I wound up writing with them. Jason Mraz and I have recorded a duet of "Rainbow Connection." I'm working now with Daft Punk. Although there's this press blackout on Daft Punk. I'm not supposed to really talk about that right now, but they're mixing the album. The Muppets just did an album called The Green Album—you know, The Beatles did a White Album—and it debuted on the chart at #9. It's all contemporary groups like Weezer and My Morning Jacket, Matt Nathanson, guys like that all doing these Muppet songs. And about half of them are mine. First of all, I was thrilled that they did it. But I freaked out when I heard My Morning Jacket do these two songs from Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. It was brilliant. So I jumped online and started buying My Morning Jacket material. They're an amazing band! All of this is very complimentary to a songwriter.
I know you've been making some appearances with the film as of late. Has anything surprised you about the response to it, or have you discovered anything about your music during the process?
The biggest surprise of the film is how lovingly it's been received. My reluctance to do this was based around my own addiction to the camera at one point and all the media attention. Do I really want to poke the bear again? Is the film gonna come out and is the across-the-board media gonna go, "Who cares?" But the response has been so respectful and so kind. That kind of throws me. I'm not used to the media being so sweet about this. I'll take all the kindness I can get. It's really wonderful.
Paul Williams is scheduled to appear for a discussion with a screenning of the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on Saturday, June 30.