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I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t know who musician and actor Paul Williams is, sad to say. I’m also sure that there are plenty of folks who may not realize it, but it’s likely that you know his work. For a time, Paul Williams was one of the most famous and successful personalities on the planet. He has won 3 Grammys, 2 Golden Globes and one Academy Award.

Straight 70s swag.

Straight 70s swag – hair, glasses, denim/Hawaiian combo shirt

If you’re a fan of The Muppets, you’ve probably heard “The Rainbow Connection.” He wrote it. If you dig Barbra Streisand and her film A Star Is Born, you might know of a song named “Evergreen” – he wrote it and won an Oscar for it.

paul-williams streisand

If you’re a Carpenters fan, you’ve likely heard “We’ve Only Just Begun” (beware – the linked video displays some mad tambourine game). Once again, he wrote it. He wrote the music and songs to one of my all-time favorite movies, Alan Parker‘s Bugsy Malone, a film featuring a young Scott Baio, Jodie Foster and an entire cast of all kids no older than 16 parodying gangster films. “You Give a Little Love” from that film was so damn good that Coca-Cola whored it out in one of their commercials. Here’s the far better original:

Couple all this with him being a fixture on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Muppet Show, Hollywood Squares, The Gong Show and making countless other appearances and cameos in both TV and film (most notably Smokey and the Bandit and Brian De Palma‘s cult classic Phantom of the Paradise) and you’ve got one famous man. But, as these stories often go in the 70s and 80s, drugs and alcohol derailed his life and took from him the fame and popularity that seemed improbable from the beginning. Enter Vegas Vacation director Stephen Kessler, who for years thought Williams to be dead. Kessler, a lifelong fan of Williams, finds out he is indeed alive, so he goes to an appearance Williams is doing at a convention for the aforementioned Phantom of the Paradise. Astonished to see so many adoring fans waiting in line to see Williams awash with the same admiration that he has for the same man, Kessler decides he’s going to make a documentary on his childhood idol.

Williams as Swan in Phantom of the Paradise.

Williams (left) as Swan in Phantom of the Paradise.

What follows is Kessler trying to ingratiate himself to Paul and his wife Mariana, who reluctantly let Kessler into their lives more and more as time and persistence wears on. Kessler is able to get some really candid footage of Williams acknowledging his checkered past and takes care to show us a man who is changed and really is embracing life for what it is not for what it was. I think that is the greatest triumph of this film. Kessler‘s injection of himself into the film so much is a little off-putting and fanboyish, but one can’t deny the full portrait we get of Paul Williams in return.

Williams and Kessler on tour in the Philippines.

Williams and Kessler on tour in the Philippines.

I had often wondered what Williams was up to and still secretly hope that he is able to return to his Bugsy Malone-era form. After all, he is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Even if you don’t know who he is, you can sit and watch Paul Williams Still Alive, become acquainted with him and his legacy (which is ample), and see that he is a changed man who is apologetic about his past misdeeds and humble about his accomplishments. A fine film on a real talent and one I am glad was made. Hopefully this film will help bring more people to realize how influential Williams has been and more folks will get into his tunes.

Here is the trailer: