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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Music > Pop > Rock > Biography > Music Industry > Film > Addiction > Paul Williams: Still Alive (2011/Virgil DVD)

Paul Williams: Still Alive (2011/Virgil DVD)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C     Documentary: B



In the midst of the singer/songwriter movement, you had the laid back artists whose every album release was an event and among them, the more spectacular names spearheaded by the massive Beatles-like success of Elton John that took personal music to a higher place of energy, excitement and built the music industry into what it became at its peak, a money machine.  Elton John was joined in this respect by a newly solo Paul Simon, Harry Nilsson, Leo Sayer, an on-the-rise Billy Joel and another singer/songwriter who also tried acting and hit paydirt in 1970 co-writing two classic hit songs.


Paul Williams: Still Alive (2011) shows the rise, fall, endurance and survival of one of the most important music figures in American music history.  Starting as a child actor in the respected The Loved One (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and in Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking The Chase (1966), Williams also loved music and after trying to make it, he suddenly found two of the top music acts in the business having giant hit singles as the extremely popular Three Dog Night with their prolific Top 15 hit Out In The Country and The Carpenters with We’ve Only Just Begun, originally a jingle for a bank commercial!


Needless to say, the industry took notice and Williams was n the map, but his debut appearance on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson made him an entertainment personality and one of the most prolific careers in American music had begun.  This ran until the mid-1980s when Williams started to have drug and drinking issues, eventually ending his run and forcing him to take measures to recuperate.


Fast forward to 2011 and commercial director Stephen Kessler (of Vegas Vacation, the unexpectedly final, horrid last (we hope) National Lampoon film in that series and inane indie The Independent (bashed elsewhere on this site) decides to try and make something more memorable from his directing career (which is among the many things he tells us all about) and meet Williams who he explains he is a big fan of.  Coming across way too much like a Michael Moore imitator, he talks more about himself than he ought to, but despite this lack of concentration and major journalistic inconsistency, a portrait of Williams still manages to emerge that is informative, vital, key and not long enough at 86 minutes, shortened by Kessler’s self-indulgences.


Still, it is also a portrait of the music business, entertainment industry, what it was like to thrive in its last golden period and a re-reminder of what a huge star Williams became, yet backfiring the way excesses held back Orson Welles later in his career despite consistent and great work.  Often with co-writers Roger S. Nicols and Kenneth Lee Ascher, the hits just kept on coming.  While Williams was doing many TV shows (often singing) and films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes and The Muppet Movie, plus dramatic TV shows, Three Dog Night got hits out of Family Of Man and the classic Just An Old Fashioned Love Song, The Carpenters got Rainy Days & Mondays and I Won’t Last A Day Without You, every big music name on the business turned to him for a record and he did several movie theme songs.


This documentary does manage to cover that and more, but not in the way I would have liked.  Williams is amazingly patient with Kessler, knowing where he is coming form and going far ahead of the director, but this becomes an experience that makes Williams look at his past in ways he is sometimes not happy with as one would expect.  We see Williams touring in all kinds of venues, especially where he is still wildly popular and his sense of showmanship is still totally in tact as he is now in his 70s, does not look it and happily has his family in together.  The voice is even still there.


Williams also deals with how his growth was stopped by injections he should have never had, but he handles it all well as he often did then and you also see someone who for political reasons may have been tossed away so the regressive 1980s and after could happen.  That is why you rarely see anyone with his talent and success because the music business prefers one hit wonders or lame hit acts that make us all wonder how they keep selling anything.


With its title echoing too many forgotten artists still with us but thought dead, Still Alive revisits a tremendous music and entertainment legacy by an American original who survived and lived to see his greatness remain.  That is the biggest reason to see this documentary, but music lovers will be especially happy.



The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 image is a mix of new digital images, a great deal of various analog footage, some very degraded images of sources that would look better from their original sources (like 35mm film a few generations down from what looks like YouTube quality) edited well, but I would like to see some of the footage upgraded in the future.  Otherwise, this is what you’d expect from a documentary today, but some detail issues plague the new footage.  The lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is a mix of new simple stereo recording, old stereo classics and various monophonic sources that can be compressed and sometimes cleaner and clearer than you might expect.


Extras include five bonus music performances by Williams that Kessler recorded and thought people should see singing some of his best songs now.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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