Documentary Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie combines cinematic wonder with serious introspection

click to enlarge Documentary Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie combines cinematic wonder with serious introspection
Michael J. Fox fully opens up in Still.

It would be easy for a documentary about Michael J. Fox to turn into a maudlin weepie, but that's not what Fox or director Davis Guggenheim are aiming for with Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie. The Apple TV+ original, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, sets itself apart from the glut of streaming documentaries by taking a cinematic approach, rather than resembling a glorified newsmagazine episode. Fox may be best known these days for his health struggles, but that doesn't mean he isn't a movie star, and as the title indicates, he hasn't given up on making movies.

That's not to say that Still is some kind of action blockbuster, but it incorporates footage from Fox's past film and TV work in an ingenious way that brings his story to life. The movie begins with Fox's first experience of Parkinson's disease symptoms in 1991, before shifting back to encompass most of his life and career. Fox is the only person directly interviewed, and Still clearly comes from his perspective, including chunks of narration from the audiobook of one his multiple memoirs.

Guggenheim includes the typical archival footage of news reports and talk-show segments, but he also weaves together a narrative by using Fox's past on-screen appearances to represent events from his life. By recontextualizing Fox's own performances into a reflection on his personal life, Guggenheim gives them a freshness that wouldn't come across just by showing the same familiar scenes from Family Ties or Back to the Future or Teen Wolf when those subjects come up. Even with the use of re-enactments as connective material, the result is something fresh and emotionally engaging, halfway between an experimental video collage and a biopic.

It helps that Fox is just as engaging in his interviews, and that Guggenheim gently calls him out when he seems to be deflecting or obfuscating. Guggenheim includes candid scenes of Fox working with doctors and physical therapists, as well as interactions with his family, giving as full a picture as possible of Fox's condition within the constraints of a celebrity-approved documentary. There's nothing in Still that's as raw or intimate as a movie like Introducing, Selma Blair, in which actor Blair shared her multiple sclerosis treatment process, but Fox has also been living with Parkinson's for more than 30 years, and has become an expert at coping with the illness. Still may be polished, but it never comes off as dishonest.

Still also doesn't really offer any new insights that Fox hasn't already shared via his many previous interviews, books and other media platforms, but Guggenheim effectively distills those talking points into something direct and viscerally affecting. Parkinson's is always a presence in Still, but that doesn't mean that Guggenheim shortchanges Fox's accomplishments as an actor or downplays the extent of his international fame in the 1980s. Fox's talent as a performer has a direct impact on how he deals with his disease, and his sense of optimism is key to his continued ability to thrive.

Guggenheim concisely conveys all of that without getting heavy-handed, bringing together his experience with documentaries about social issues (An Inconvenient Truth, He Named Me Malala) and entertainers (It Might Get Loud, From the Sky Down). Viewers come away from Still with a better understanding of Fox as a person and as a celebrity, a balance that most documentaries about famous people fail to achieve. It's impossible for anyone watching Still to truly know Fox, but through his artistic expression as much as through his actual words, the movie gets remarkably close to genuine connection. ♦

Rated R
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Streaming on Apple TV+ starting May 12

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