As a few of you know, I’m a big fan of documentaries, and I stumbled upon one last night which I wanted to strongly recommend: Still Alive.
It’s about Paul Williams. I grew up in the 1970s, and this guy was everywhere. You couldn’t turn on the television without seeing this very short, long-haired, blonde songwriter. Circus of the Stars. The Tonight Show. Even Planet of the Apes. He was omnipresent. He won Emmys, Grammys, and even an Oscar. He was on Johnny Carson something like 50 times.
Fame is a capricious mistress, however, and early in the documentary there’s a “man on the street” interview where the filmmaker asks people of all ages if they know who Paul Williams is. Nope. Uh-uh. Never heard of him.
The moment the interviewer asked if they had ever heard the song “The Rainbow Connection”, they instantly knew it and could sing it.
Paul Williams songs are deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. It doesn’t matter that his hits were almost half a century ago. People of all ages know his work, if you give them a chance.
This movie could have been one of those “Whatever happened to……?” type films, but it isn’t that, nor is it a hagiography. The key thread in the story is Mr. Williams’ addiction to drugs and alcohol, which he mercifully shook off about a quarter century ago, and he has remained sober to this day. He has become a leader and spokesperson in the recovery movement, and he has transformed himself from a bit of a self-deprecating punchline on The Tonight Show into someone inspirational.
The juxtaposition of what used to be (glitter, glamour, nonstop women, parties, drugs, endless television appearances) and what is now (small venues, relative anonymity, a modest house) is striking, but what comes through at the end is how genuinely happy the man finally is. He looks back on his drug-fueled days……….the ego, the narcissism, the bad husband he was to his two former wives……..and is struck with shame and remorse. He doesn’t wallow in it. But, through the creation of this film, he is forced to confront it.
But he is clearly a man who looks forward, not backward, and even if you had never heard a song this guy wrote in your entire life (which is unlikely), you still can’t help but cheer for his strength and positive outlook. I knew virtually nothing about the man until I saw this on Amazon Prime Video, and I must say, it was a pleasure to watch.
I’m glad Mr. Williams is finally truly happy.