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by Doug Carlson

Paul Williams:  Still Alive

Directed by Stephen Kessler

Paul Williams: Still AlivePaul Williams had a problem:  fame.

He also had a solution:  more fame.

His battle with the Fame Monster and its subsequent toll on his career,  health and loved ones is the subject of Stephen Kessler's poignant and inspiring documentary, which made its debut on September 11, 2011 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film is a compelling, at times harrowing examination of a talented underdog whose golden songwriting touch and quick wit saw him showered with awards, accolodes and access to Hollywood's elite throughout the seventies. Only after a lengthy struggle with addiction (and parenthood) did he gain the wisdom to escape the "Mr. Showbiz" persona that had earlier so defined him. 

Using a staggering number of archival clips of Paul's many TV guest appearances, the film is a visual treat for any child of the seventies, when Paul could be seen trading quips with Johnny Carson or singing a duet with Kermit the Frog in any given week. We learn only now that his desire to be special -- rather than different -- led him to make a number of decisions and take risks that not only harmed his career but nearly ended his life. 

The film is primarily an examination of trust, as Kessler suffers through long stretches where his subject is clearly having second thoughts about the concept of "unlimited access". Ultimately, the director is forced to become a participant in his own documentary, a move which seems to finally break the tension and allow Paul Williams to let down his guard. The result is a candid, occasionally uncomfortable, but ultimately revelatory portrait of a man pursuing his livelihood on his own terms.

That this pursuit led him to Winnipeg will be of overwhelming interest to those who attended his 2006 concert at Phantompalooza 2, the apex of this city's charming love affair with Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise. The event is lovingly captured and plays a crucial role in the director's discovery that not only is Paul Williams still alive, he continues to bring love and life to fans around the world.

-- September 13, 2011

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