I have to admit the review of STILL: The Michael J. Fox Story, the documentary produced by Apple TV+
Its about one of the most loved actors of the 80s and 90s, suffering from Parkinson’s disease for over thirty years, made me quite uneasy.
I mean, if the documentary had been bad, with what heart could I have spoken ill of it given the courage and strength that it took for Fox to participate in it personally, getting naked and showing us his very difficult everyday life? And this without taking into account the affection that binds me to an actor who has played some films that are not only beautiful, but also deeply linked to my childhood, my adolescence, my training and my culture? In short, what held me back was that I was afraid of not being able to maintain the detachment necessary to evaluate the work as such, without projecting an emotional transport onto it. Then, looking at her, I realized it didn’t matter. Yes, my judgment onSTILL is influenced by the artistic and human affection and esteem I feel for Michael J. Fox . And yes, that’s okay, because the value of a documentary like this cannot be established, which tells a story like this and with a protagonist like this, simply on the “how”. It is the thing that is the most important matter.
However, before going on, let’s talk about this “how”. In very simple terms, the work has three narrative sections that alternate: the first is the reconstruction of Michael’s life, created through a painstaking and maniacal selection of his films, his television series and his public appearances, cut and minced to create a story that is not only coherent but also fluid and extraordinarily natural, to the point that it is hard to believe that it is mainly selected archival material. There are very brief reconstructions (with an actor always filmed from behind in Michael’s place) but the documentary uses them extremely sparingly in some transitions, and only in those cases where the director and his editors have not managed to find the right moment of the life ofMichael J. Fox caught on camera.
This part of the documentary is well conceived, wonderfully executed and skilfully edited (although a little sorry that, say, The Frighteners gets so little space, being perhaps the last high-profile film starring the actor) but it is also, and by far, the least important. The second section consists of a long interview, conducted over a long period of time, with Fox himself, in his current state of health. The last part are short shots that show us his private life, his moments of therapy and those with his family.
I’ll tell you first: although STILL is not a work that seeks pitiful tones and drama, these moments are not very easy to watch, especially if you loved Michael J. Fox even just a little. In fact, the protagonist of the Back to the Future trilogy talks about his illness and his life prospects with ruthless frankness (but also with a great sense of humor and a painful levity) and this thing cannot leave us indifferent, as they leave the moments of the actor’s days indifferent, captured by the lens of a camera that manages to be, at the same time, discreet and indiscreet.
Oggi su Apple TV+ STILL: la storia di Michael J. Fox pic.twitter.com/37mZjFW3Zd
— Screenweek (@Screenweek) May 12, 2023
Yet, something is missing. It’s strange to say since up to this moment I have told you that the documentary is very honest, but I have the impression that the truth is missing. I try to explain myself: Fox speaks with an open heart, tells it like it is, makes fun of his life and his condition but does so only in terms of him. As much as director Davis Guggenheim tries to provoke him with even unpleasant or difficult questions, Michael J. Fox remains firmly within that personal narrative he has been building ever since he decided to tell the world about his condition and to become an activist for research and an example to follow (to the point that in the documentary he will say, in a moment of discouragement: “ I am Michael J. Fox, I am an example”, getting as a response from his physiotherapist: “ maybe someday you can be less Michael J. Fox… ”).
And here’s the problem with the documentary: Michael J. Fox is always too much Michael J. Fox to be “real.” Let me be clear, he suffers and has to deal with a terrible disease every day, and this thing shows, but the actor talks very little about it, to the point that the director tells him: “I interviewed you for hours and you never spoke to me of the pain you feel ”. Michael deflects the question, as he deflects many others. In essence, the way Fox portrays his illness is exactly the way it’s easy to imagine Alex P. Keaton, Marty McFly, Brantley Foster/Carlton Whitfield or Mike Flaherty would deal with it.. It’s beautiful, it’s a great example and inspiration and I’m sure it helps a lot of people, but is it even true to the core? Now, perhaps the fault is not only Michael’s, perhaps part of the problem also derives from Guggenheim’s training, who as a documentary filmmaker has always placed himself at the service of a narrative established upstream (remember An Inconvenient Truth, taken from the book by Al Gore and Oscar winner and the many promotional videos on the life of President Joe Biden), the fact remains that STILL ‘s greatest merit is not so much the story of how the man Michael J. Fox deals with Parkinson’s, but rather the fact of reminding us why the world has always loved actor Michael J. Fox and always will.