Both documentaries deal with a musician wrongly presumed to be dead;
the difference here is that the love comes straight from the director,
Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation), whose impetus for the project
is purely, deeply personal. With all the extra layers removed, I began
to feel it, too; his adoration for his subject is infectious.
Only Williams took some serious convincing. At first finding Kessler at pest, the songwriter of such modern easy-listening classics as “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “The Rainbow Connection” — made famous by The Carpenters and Kermit the Frog, respectively — eventually agrees to be part of the documentary. Getting Williams to talk about his drug-fueled heyday in “a Studio 54 world” is another story. He gets there.
The two form an unlikely “bromance” as Kessler follows Williams trouncing through Vegas, playing a Michael Bolton charity golf game, and touring in the Philippines, where terrorist cells are active, unnerving the director to no end. These sequences are even more fun than clips throughout Williams’ long, odd career, particularly in the ’70s, when he achieved a near omnipresence by doing seemingly everything: getting shot by Angie Dickinson’s Police Woman, parading around on the surreal Brady Bunch Variety Hour, and wearing his Battle for the Planet of the Apes makeup on The Tonight Show — while smoking at that!
Then again, this is the man who immediately followed his Academy Award win with an appearance on Circus of the Stars. Rhyme and reason apparently were trumped by coke and booze. While he’s been sober for years, Williams shies away from the spotlight today. Thank God Kessler pressed on and on, because in the end, Still Alive is gold: funny, sad, ultimately triumphant and deeply moving. Oscar, you robbed Kessler. —Rod Lott