It’s quite the résumé: writer of hit songs for the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand and the Muppets; delightfully villainous costar of Brian De Palma’s cult classic Phantom of the Paradise; one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guests. Paul Williams has lived a life most would envy, but according to Stephen Kessler’s revealing documentary, he’s only just begun. This isn’t your standard talking-heads hagiography. Kessler began filming as a fan first, attending a Williams concert in Canada after he discovered his childhood idol, long out of the Hollywood limelight, was still alive and well. He slowly works his way into the legendary singer-songwriter’s confidence, accompanying him to a variety of events—celebrity golf tournament, autograph signings, performances around the globe—and probes his subject about his colorful past.
Williams is candid about his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, and sharp-tongued whenever his interviewer tries to fit him into the standard fallen-celebrity template. (Carpenters and Carsons be damned, the tireless, two-decades sober Williams is doing just fine, thank you.) It’s to Kessler’s credit that he’s more than willing to play the fool in this collaborative pursuit of the unvarnished truth, most notably during an eventful recital in the Philippines, where the filmmaker is sure they’ll be killed by Qaeda operatives. The oft-hilarious push-and-pull between director and subject—Williams wryly notes that the film is turning into “the Steve and Paulie Show”—effectively hacks away at the celebrity-enthusiast divide. By the end of this perceptive dual portrait, both men are content to merely be human.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich