In the opening of the film, writer/director Stephen Kessler reenacts a late night scroll through a website (complete with twinkly Angelfire gifs) devoted to Academy Award winning polymath Paul Williams. Kessler casually remarks, “I always thought he died too young.” The proverbial record scratches as we train our eyes on a list of the artist’s very recent tour dates and meet the film with empathetic laughter. And it’s safe to say that from this point on, empathetic laughter becomes the staple of the film.
Cue a series of vox pop interviews, setting the tone and revealing something far more bewildering: that the name Paul Williams ceases to resonate with the sidewalk masses afoot until you mention a collective trigger - “The Rainbow Connection” - and then it’s hard to stop them from finishing their own improvised a capella versions. These clips result in something that I personally could have delighted in for another half hour.
But Williams fares better luck in the SXSW crowd, as I’m sure Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Virgil) and Phantom of the Paradise (Swan) rightfully dominate some of our top lists. Though hopefully your family road trips didn’t take a whiplash-inducing turn from the lonely, lambent ballads he wrote for The Carpenters (“Rainy Days and Mondays”) and Three Dog Night (“An Old Fashioned Love Song”) to Jackyl, as mine did.
At this point there’s no slowing Kessler on his journey forth to find present-day Williams, and we become curiously aligned with him, asking in unison, “Why do I want to find him and what the hell am I going to do when I get there?”
Understandably reluctant as the idol might be at times, Kessler soldiers forth through a rickety introduction in which he hilariously confesses while shooting from a (respectful) distance across the street, “I felt like... a stalker.” This awkward dance comes to a head when Paul bluntly cuts straight through the crap and suggests a better idea, something that sounds like a joke at first: that Stephen step before the lens for the Paulie and Steve Show. This is where the film truly takes flight, because there’s much more to Williams than an episode of VH1’s Where Are They Now. And Kessler’s quest through the arduous documentary making process itself takes a rightful passenger seat as it’s every bit as engaging.
Looking back on his tumultuous past just isn’t that important. In fact, we’re thankfully offered only a small dose of that before it feels inessential. Far more fascinating is the recovery of a new life in which he admits he’s discovered and gained more than one would assume he lost.
Throughout the film Williams reiterates the catalyst for the substance abuse and overall downward spiral of spreading oneself vapor thin (in short, fame whoring). He would agree that he was born special, but that try as he might, being different seemed somehow unattainable. I’d argue that he was different all along - possibly now more than ever.