Biography pictures come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they take a more chronological approach (Malcolm X), sometimes they’re more focused on a specific moment in time (Chevalier), and, for others, it’s more interpretive (Rocketman). This doesn’t just apply to standard features, but within the documentary genre, as well. Lizzie Gottlieb’s Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb (2022) chronicles the working relationship between author and editor, jumping back and forth in time as Gottlieb invites audiences to learn about the longtime working relationship and their process. Amanda Micheli’s Halftime (2022) follows musician/actor Jennifer Lopez, using the development of the 2020 Super Bowl Halftime show as the way to explore the artist’s personal and professional journey. Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream (2022) is a mosaic of music and interviews centered on artist David Bowie, delivering a film that explores the feelings of Bowie’s work and influence without delving too much into the artist themself. This last one is most akin to documentarian Davis Guggenheim’s (He Named Me Malala) latest work, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, first premiering at Sundance 2023 and now coming to Apple TV+, a film which explores the life and career of the beloved performer through the lens of his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. Guggenheim specifically relies on Fox himself to tell the story, incorporating a mixture of archived personal and press materials with actor-reenactments meshed with footage from Fox’s cinematic catalogue, creating a narrative that powerfully conveys the seriousness of his condition without once looking down on him.
At the age of 29, when Fox was riding high off the success of the Back to the Future trilogy (among other very notable works), he awoke to discover his pinky on his left hand moving of its own accord. This was the first sign that something was wrong and, upon receiving his diagnosis, he decided to keep it hidden for some time. This meant working on projects like For Love or Money (1993), The American President (1995), The Frighteners (1996), and Spin City (1996-2001), all while knowing that he wasn’t in full control of his body. This sounds dour and, from an outsider’s perspective (one which has its own fears of losing control of both mental and physical capacities), the whole of Still very well could be this sad tale. But in the words of Fox himself, “yeah, that’s boring.” Instead, using the often-contagious propulsive energy Fox brings to his performances, Guggenheim infuses Still with the same, keeping the story moving through a mixed-media mosaic that honors its subject and their worldview by being honest, by being open, and never stopping.
Don’t mistake the language above to infer that Still is somehow unreflective. The audience is taken on a journey that begins roughly at the age of two and goes through close to the present. It’s just that the trip between these moments is guided by way of actor recreations (with the face of Danny Irizarry (Michael) largely out of frame so as to create the illusion of following Fox) that are integrated with various scenes from Fox’s work. So when Fox talks about how he’s always been a fast walker, Guggenheim may show us Irizarry speeding his way somewhere, but then cut to Family Ties with Alex P. Keaton rounding a corner with a cut to The Secret of My Success’s Brantley Foster with a cut to with a cut to… Perhaps my favorite of these moments is when Fox tells the story of learning that he’s gotten the part of Marty McFly, a combination of Fox’s on-screen interview, his voice with reenactment where Guggenheim focuses on a script being passed from one side of a desk to another, and then one of Fox’s characters reading over a document. Even the telling of the absolute chaos that was working on both Future (1985) and Family Ties simultaneously is a dizzying mix of on-set footage, reenactments, and various scenes in which Marty is dropped into or wakes up in a bed, each piece working together to convey the constant motion of Fox’s life in that period. The editing by Michael Harte (Three Identical Strangers) conveys the sense of Fox as a perpetual motion machine, a person always on the move, whether in-character or not. But what Guggenheim’s also doing is conflating the voice of Fox in the present with the performances of the past, generating a link in space-time so that the audience never falls backward into their memories (this reviewer has plenty of fondness for much of Fox’s catalogue), losing sight of what this story is about — Fox and his diagnosis.
Never once does the film lean into “boring” territory, while also not seeking to uplift or make a hero of who Fox is. Rather, with Fox-of-now guiding the way, we see the tough times of his early career, the opulence of the high period, and how he wrestled with his own personal view of who he is versus who the public made him out to be. Because of this, some may be frustrated to learn that his private life with fellow Family Ties actor and wife Tracy Pollan and their four children is touched on, but not explored. Except this isn’t the kind of story which requires us to get talking head interviews with the wife and children to obtain their thoughts on Fox’s condition. In truth, that information is likely already out there as his diagnosis was made public in 1998. Same with covering the alcoholism he found himself drowning in as a result of masking and fear of his diagnosis. Being privy to the private stuff is salacious and would certainly draw audiences in, except Guggenheim’s approach is to place the focus where it needs to be, on the present as it relates to the past. So in between the voiceover-led reenactments, the beautifully edited use of film footage, and archived materials, we’re allowed a peek at Fox’s physical therapy, his doctor visits for his frequent injuries, and a few moments with his family. None of it is easy, and there’s never a sense that Fox and his family think it is; rather, Guggenheim presents a person who’s come to terms with who they are, compared to who they were in their younger days, and focuses on that.
Even if the Still doesn’t even mention a personal favorite and Fox’s first cinematic role, Midnight Madness (1980), and throws a slight insult toward Teen Wolf (1985) (though given his frustration over knowing Future was filming down the road is understandable), Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie gives the audience everything Guggenheim intends: a warm tribute to a career beloved by many without losing sight of the person audiences attached onto. Audiences far too often forget that the characters on screen are exactly that, characters, with actual people playing them. With this documentary, Guggenheim ensures that we never forget that while the characters live on in home releases and streaming, the man who brought them to life is just as valuable, intelligent, and determined. Gravity may be his enemy, as well as deteriorating kinesthetic control, but that doesn’t stop him from working and living. This isn’t an inspirational tale; it’s a matter-of-fact one. The difference being the absence of “boring.”
Available on Apple TV+ May 12th, 2023.
Coming to the Independent Picture House in Charlotte, NC May 12th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Apple TV+ Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews, streaming
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