As celebrity biographies continue to find success on streaming platforms, it’s easy to become disillusioned with the arguably critic-proof format as it solely appeals to an audience comfortable and familiar with the subject, and therefore presumably less discerning. And while it’s certainly tempting to lump Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie in with any number of projects with similar premises, documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth and He Named Me Malala) finds room to work within this conceit to make some inspired storytelling choices. First and foremost, he recognizes the innate charisma that propelled Michael J. Fox to stardom and never faded in the years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, and the decision to have Fox tell his own story allows for insight into his character that’s unique in this documentary subgenre.
In the broad strokes, Guggenheim’s film follows the standard beats of a celebrity’s rise and fall, first focusing on the young Fox’s not-quite overnight stardom, then following the arc of his career to the announcement of his degenerative condition. The narrative through line, as the title somewhat ironically alludes to, is Fox’s perpetual motion as an actor. Whether it’s working himself raw on the sets of Family Ties and Back To The Future simultaneously for three straight months to get his shot at stardom, or retreating into a haze of alcoholism and work to escape his medical realities, Still examines a man who could barely take the time to breathe, since doing so would expose him to vulnerabilities he didn’t wish to face.
The film most effectively demonstrates this by recreating the dramas of Fox’s life, as narrated by Fox himself, juxtaposed with scenes from his films and television shows. This wealth of footage offers ample opportunities to not only draw direct parallels between Fox’s characters and his actual life, but is often used to demonstrate how he struggled through his performances. The most obvious of these are when Fox can be seen hiding his shaking left hand, but the technique extends to split seconds where the actor isn’t called upon the react, and the happy-go-lucky mask subtly slips away. Admittedly, this is naked manipulation on the part of the filmmakers that may stretch the truth–after all, can Fox even remember what he was thinking during one take in one episode he shot decades ago?— but the effect is striking all the same.
This is interspersed with a B-plot that follows Fox today, in his struggles with physical therapy and in the interactions with his loving wife and children. Cynically, this juxtaposition would be designed to evoke pity in its audience, but in practice, Fox comes across as a man at peace with himself and his situation, perhaps for the first time in his life. This does lend the film a sense of anti-climax, as it front-loads the story with much of his experience out of the public eye, but it’s affecting for how it draws a comparison to the different stages of Fox’s life so directly.
Ultimately, the experience hinges on Fox’s unfiltered, charismatic narration of his own story, where he spends his life in character roles attempting to escape his vulnerability. Eventual disability notwithstanding, Fox’s stardom-fueled egotism and eventual fall back to earth are not so unusual in how celebrity is usually conceived, but Still is a solid reminder of why Fox is a magnetic camera presence and why he continues to be beloved, both as an actor and an activist for Parkinson’s research. As rote as many celebrity navel-gazing documentaries have become, it’s refreshing to see a film that can still find the strengths of the format.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie premieres on Apple TV+ on May 12, 2023.