As always is the case at the 43-year-old Nashville Film Festival, held April 19-26 at the Regal Green Hills Cinemas, this year boasted a feast of anticipated music documentaries. We caught two of them and were thoroughly impressed by both. Hank Cochran: Livin’ For A Song, directed by Wes Pryor and written by Greg Welsch, had its world premiere last Wednesday night. Cochran, a legendary hit songwriter, recording artist, publisher and more, passed away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer. His hits include “I Fall To Pieces,” “He’s Got You” (Patsy Cline), “Make the World Go Away” (Eddy Arnold), “The Chair,” “Ocean Front Property” (George Strait), “Miami, My Amy” (Keith Whitley), “Is It Raining At Your House” (Vern Gosdin) and many more. His catalog has generated nearly 36 million performances, according to BMI. It was bittersweet timing for the film, and it wasn’t lost on the music industry-studded viewers. We did learn that he was able to see all raw film footage before making the trek to hillbilly heaven.
There were all kinds of memorable stories about houseboat escapades and Hank’s tenacious song plugging tactics, for starters, where old friends and musical contemporaries got back together with him for conversing and reminiscing. There were also some great character revelations that unfolded in the latter part of the film in respect to Hank’s relationship with his stepdaughter from his final marriage of more than 25 years. Artist participation came through intimate and exclusive song performances by a cross-section of those who have recorded his songs, some who were co-writers, all who revere the man and have been deeply affected by his music—including Elvis Costello, Brad Paisley, Mandy Barnett, Beegie Adair, Dean Dillon, Lee Ann Womack, Mark Chesnutt, Jeannie Seely and Jeff Bates. Thumbs Up.
And then came Stephen Kessler’s masterful documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive on Thursday night. Williams, 71, is indeed alive and kicking and full of energy. He was also in attendance and avai lable after the film for a Q&A. Williams is now in his third year as the President of ASCAP and said afterward that two of his biggest priorities in life now are 1) protecting the rights of songwriters and composers so that they can continue to earn a fair living in the business of music and 2) his recovery from drug and alcohol addition; he’s now 22 years sober. In addition to having a respectable recording career, he was hands down one of the most successful pop songwriters of the 70s, with hits by Barbra Streisand (“Evergreen”), The Carpenters (“Rainy Days and Mondays,” “We’ve Only Just Begun”), Helen Reddy (“You and Me Against the World”), The Muppets (“Rainbow Connection”), “Old-Fashioned Love Song” (Three Dog Night) and many more.
As the movie portrays, he was also a funny and vibrant (and at times unpredictable, on account of his excessive drug use) personality which earned him more than 100 appearances on the Johnny Carson Show among others. Kessler, a rabid fan, begins the narration with something to the effect of, “When I was a kid, I wanted to be Paul Williams.” And rather than doing a hands-off, one-dimensional documentary (how it started out), he puts himself in the film at the urging of his friends and begins earning Williams’ trust — in essence becoming part of the Williams family off and on for more than five years. And the effect of that decision is that Williams opens up and becomes more revealing and honest.
There is some great footage throughout from old variety shows in the ‘70s that Kessler was able to dig up, and he even shows Williams some of his drug-addled television moments in order to get his take on it all these years later. It is a raw and uncomfortable segment, but it’s in keeping with the redemptive thread and transparency that is woven into the story. This is one of the most moving music docs I’ve seen in a while. Thumbs Up.