STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie Is a Documentary of Intimate UnderstandingMovies Reviews Michael J. Fox
Even if you live under a rock, there’s a good chance you’re at least aware of Michael J. Fox. Whether it’s from his ubiquitous celeb/cute guy status from Family Ties and the Back to the Future movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s or his two-plus decades serving as a public face/advocate for Parkinson’s disease, Fox certainly feels like one of the globe’s most “seen” figures of note. He’s also written four memoirs that encompass his career, family life and living with Parkinson’s Disease. All of which begs the question: What’s left for a documentary to tell about his life?
The answer is “plenty,” as evidenced in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie from director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). The intimate yet spritely doc gives the 61-year-old actor the opportunity to share with audiences an unflinching, witty and self-deprecating look at his life up to this point. Told almost entirely in his own words and voice, STILL utilizes the very clever technique of mixing cinematically shot dramatizations, archival footage and actual scenes from Fox’s movies to weave a narrative across his life. The approach and tone is decidedly non-maudlin, and determinedly hopeful despite capturing the staggering hardships Fox faces simply navigating an average day.
STILL opens in 1990 on the day Fox felt the first symptom of what would eventually be diagnosed as Parkinson’s. Fox narrates his own life story here, much like he does with his books. This particular moment, in a random hotel after a night of partying, sets the stage for everything that will lead up to this life-changing day, and all that will follow. Guggenheim then introduces Fox on-camera in the now, at his most physically impacted by his disease—yet without losing his sharp wit or journeyman’s attitude about the cards fate has dealt him.
The act of being still, and Fox’s life-long problem with achieving that state, is the main thesis (and thus the title) of the documentary. Fox and Guggenheim go back to the actor’s humble beginnings in Canada as a very short kid who outran his bullies until he discovered drama class. Using a wealth of family pictures, yearbook photos and early footage from his first roles in Canadian TV projects, STILL immerses us in Fox’s life as a rabblerouser in his own house. Initial success strikes before he graduates high school and he’s counseled towards Hollywood. Shockingly, his pragmatic dad lets him drop out and personally road trips with him to Hollywood. There the doc folds in more footage of his early work, as Fox’s voiceover details just how poor and desperate he got before landing the role that changed his life: Alex P. Keaton in NBC’s Family Ties.
Unlike other docs which usually balance multiple talking heads, Guggenheim lets Fox drive the narrative using his sharp comedic timing, as editor Michael Harte cuts together extremely entertaining sequences that propulsively capture the seminal moments of his early career. Harte and their research team do a masterful job piecing together scenes from all of Fox’s projects, used to essentially reenact Fox’s life at the time. Standout segments include how Fox shot Family Ties and Back to the Future at the same time, or charting how he first met Tracy Pollan on the set of Ties, and then how she slashed his ego down to size and eventually became his wife.
The doc also uses some judiciously placed needledrops from the eras appropriate to Fox’s life, which help contextualize the vibe of what the actor was experiencing—like the crazed partying peak of his fame in the mid ‘80s. It’s great music supervision in action, with every drop used in service of telling Fox’s story in cinematic ways. Guggenheim also chooses not to strictly adhere to a linear timeline, as he often cuts back to the present to capture Fox’s face in the telling of something particularly important, or to reveal what Fox is going through to help make the film.
And Guggenheim is an effective unseen-but-heard provocateur while interviewing Fox. He pushes him to be more candid or revealing about things the actor mostly avoids, like exactly how much pain he’s in most days. However, Fox is not an evasive subject. He’s undeterred, explaining and showing the ravages of the disease on his body. But it’s never played for sympathy. If anything, Fox reverts back to the runner of his youth when it comes to dwelling on his disease. He’s able to cling to a seemingly infinite well of gratitude that’s clearly born from the laughter and normalness he has with his wife and four children. If there’s anything lacking in the doc, it’s perhaps having more of them woven into his story. We get home videos and some current moments of them as a family unit, but not much said in their own words. And while Fox is openly self-critical of his flaws as a workaholic husband and father, the addition of more of his family would have been welcome.
Unlike other recent celeb docs told in the voice and with the consent of their subjects, like Tina (2021) and HBO’s upcoming Love to Love You, Donna Summer (2023), STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie doesn’t suffer from feeling like it was heavily curated, or even censored to avoid sensitive topics. To Fox’s credit, he’s unflinching in assessing the mistakes in his life, from his early boorish behavior, that came with fame, to his alcoholism, which stemmed from him trying to hide his diagnosis. And even with a tight 95-minute run time, Guggenheim paces the doc to hit the span of Fox’s life in an even and measured way. Nothing feels particularly skimmed over, and the use of so much film and archival footage has the added benefit of recontextualizing his whole public life and career into a more intimate understanding of the actual man. STILL is an impressive, inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking look at Fox’s ongoing journey, made all the more powerful for being told in his voice.
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Release Date: May 12, 2023 (Apple TV+)
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen