Producers: Davis Guggenheim, Annetta Marion, Jonathan King and Will Cohen Director: Davis Guggenheim Cast: Michael J. Fox, Tracy Pollan, Danny Irizarry and Hannah Galway Distributor: Apple+
Oscar-winning Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is a biography of Michael J. Fox, and in terms of covering his life it does a fine job. Using archival footage, clips, recreations and extended interviews with the actor, along with his voiceover, it gives us facts and pointed observations about his childhood and family, his early struggles breaking into the business, his breakthrough success on TV with “Family Ties” and on screen with “Teen Wolf” and especially “Back to the Future,” and the stardom that followed in both comedy and drama, including his return to television in “Spin City.” It also traces his personal life—the excesses that came with fame, his marriage to actress Tracy Pollan, and the family they’ve built together.
But Fox’s life is much more than a conventional career story, and the film acknowledges that from the very start, beginning with a recreation of an episode from 1991, when Fox (played, according to the credits, by Danny Irizarry), awakening after a night of celebration, notices a twitch in one of his fingers. It was the first sign of what would be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease.
There followed seven years during which Fox continued working in films, concealing his illness by taking pills that increased the dopamine in his system and obscuring the tremors with bits of business. In late 1998, however, with the symptoms worsening, he revealed his condition and cut back significantly on his acting, though he periodically took roles until announcing his retirement in 2020.
“Still” is utterly forthcoming about Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s, the effects of which are evident in his conversations with Guggenheim, along with footage of his work with therapists (including a speech therapist, who’s shown making suggestions as he records audiobooks of his memoirs) and of his daily routine (in one example of which, toward the start, he takes a fall on the sidewalk; in an interview segment, a gash on his forehead, caused by another accident, is being treated). (The director of photography is C. Kim Miles, and the cinematographers Julia Liu and Clair Popkin.)
Yet throughout Fox maintains an upbeat attitude, joking about his stumbles (saying to a passing young woman, after that sidewalk fall, “You knocked me off my feet”) while treating his illness as an obstacle to be dealt with rather than an occasion of depression. His appearance is altered, of course, but he retains the charm and exuberance that made him a star in the eighties and beyond. And, as the film also shows, he’s used those qualities tirelessly as an activist and philanthropist to promote medical research on Parkinson’s.
Yet the film isn’t hagiography. Fox is open about how, especially during the nineties when he was hiding his symptoms from the public and his co-workers, he was an absent husband and father, and drank too much.
And while the material itself is straightforwardly biographical, the presentation is imaginative, making “Still” engaging for its style as well as its content. Guggenheim and Harte employ recreations, but intercut them with cannily-chosen clips from Fox’s movies and backstage footage in which he can be interpreted as doing the very things he’s talking about. The segment describing his frantic back-and-forth trips to make “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” simultaneously is only one example of the tactic.
That segment also encapsulates the title. Parkinson’s has literally made Fox a man in constant motion—it takes such effort for him to control the tremors that doing so makes it virtually impossible for him to do anything else—but the film demonstrates that even before the disease struck, he was always rushing about in a mad dash, desperately trying to make it as an actor and, once he’d succeeded, barely ever pausing to catch his breath before the illness forced him to. (He observes that he couldn’t keep still even before it became physically impossible for him to do so.) Of course the title reminds us that though Parkinson’s has kept him out of the limelight as far as acting is concerned, he remains with us, a living symbol of triumph over adversity.
And his sense of humor persists to the end. When asked what he thinks he’d be like twenty years from now, he remarks “either cured, or like a pickle.”
Topped off as it is by a multifaceted score from composer John Powell, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is, as you’d expect, inspiring, but it’s also stylistically impressive—and enjoyable. And it makes you think how much you miss seeing Fox on the screen.