Memory Motel: Paul Williams is Alive and Well and on DVD
'70s pop icon's slight return
In the '70s, the world fell in love with Paul Williams' work because he was a preternaturally gifted songwriter. Any catalog that includes "Rainy Days and Mondays," "You and Me Against the World," "An Old Fashioned Love Song," "We've Only Just Begun," and "The Rainbow Connection," to name just a few, is bound for history. But the world fell in love with Paul Williams - in a way that they didn't with, say, Burt Bacharach or Jimmy Webb - for different reasons. One was the chubby, 5'2" songsmith's cuddly, cherubic image. Then there was his winning personality, his sharp sense of humor, and his natural knack for show biz - in the '70s and '80s he was a ubiquitous guest star on everything from game shows and talk shows to sitcoms. Like Kris Kristofferson, Williams became more famous for his public profile than for his stunning songbook.
A fan of the man since childhood, filmmaker Stephen Kessler bears an obvious love for Williams' songs, but his documentary, Paul Williams: Still Alive, ultimately seems more obsessed with the rise and fall of the singer/songwriter's celebrity status due to snowballing substance abuse problems, and Williams' subsequent exit from the spotlight. At the outset of the film (now on DVD), Kessler candidly confesses that he'd long assumed Williams was dead until happening upon the songwriter's website. Dedicated to the point of monomania, Kessler ended up spending years following Williams around with a film crew, slowly developing a friendship with the artist along the way, and trying to understand how and why Williams went off the rails.
It's an intriguing film for anyone with an interest in Williams, his era in pop culture, or simply the nature and dangers of celebrity and what it really means to become a household name. But it's not a biography, and consequently, it doesn't delve too deeply into the vast riches of Williams' work and musical history. That's not a failing of the film, it simply wasn't part of Kessler's agenda; he was after a more personal story. But anyone who sees the movie - and anyone in the aforementioned interest groups should - without already possessing a solid grounding in Williams' back catalog could probably use a little primer. Those who, by some strange, cruel turn of the cards, have never really become acquainted with Williams' own recordings, as opposed to the hit versions of his songs recorded by The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, et al - will want to get in on this too.
Let's begin at the beginning; before he really even started recording under his own name, Williams was the brains behind The Holy Mackerel, a late-'60s L.A. psych-pop project whose lone, self-titled 1969 album ranks right alongside the best of the genre. Paul's brother Mentor (destined to become famous himself for writing Dobie Gray's "Drift Away") was involved with the album as well. Paul's 1970 solo record, Someday Man, was named for the infectious, anthemic Williams tune cut by The Monkees, but the entire record is bursting at the seams with perfect pop nuggets that bear traces of that classic '60s L.A. pop/Wrecking Crew/Beach Boys feel while still pointing in a new direction. Handily, both The Holy Mackerel and Someday Man have been expertly reissued by the Now Sounds label with copious liner notes and a bounty of bonus tracks.
Williams' personal performing style begins to come more fully into focus on 1971's Just An Old Fashioned Love Song. Anyone curious about how Williams-penned hits made famous by Three Dog Night (the title track) and The Carpenters ("We've Only Just Begun") sound under the more modest ministrations of their author should swing their ears in this album's direction. Ever the entertainment all-'rounder, Williams wrote for a multitude of films and TV shows over the course of his career, and perhaps the one that makes the best use of both his theatrical sensibilities and his natural songcraft is the soundtrack for Alan Parker's quirky 1976 film, Bugsy Malone. A musical comedy centered on Prohibition-era gangsters portrayed by kids might sound tricky to tackle for a songwriter, but the tunes Williams came up with for the film not only push the plot along peerlessly, a good number of them stand up with the best of his "straight" work, making the soundtrack album a must.
Of course, all this is merely scratching the surface of the Paul Williams discography. For instance, we haven't even touched on The Muppet Movie! So once you work your way through these suggestions, jump in there and just start searching around for yourself. Happy hunting...
|Paul Williams: Still Alive trailer|
Music Feature By Jim Allen
Excavating the archives of an American original.>>