For a man who has, for the last 30 years or so, found his life defined largely by the fact that his body moves in unwanted and uncontrollable ways, I get the feeling that the last thing Michael J. Fox is actually wants is to be still.
Davis Guggenheim’s documentary biography is formed around a series of interviews with Fox, footage of his day to day life, and narration taken (as is much of the film’s structure) from his first autobiography, Lucky Man. Still strikes me as being about a man who has always wanted to control the way he and his life move. He played sports as a kid, he talks about how he relied on the mobility of his face and his body in order to do his work as an actor; his ability to control those subtle movements a key part of what he he did. Movingly, he also mentions that as the first symptoms of Parkinson’s, which freezes muscles at times as well as creating tremors, may have made him believe that he was mugging less; getting better at his craft as the disease robbed him of it.
We see Fox as he is now; his gait strained, but fighting against it and still trying to move forward at pace. Early on, we see him walking outside with his trainer and, recognisable as ever, he’s greeted by a fan as she jogs past. He gives a friendly hello, then almost immediately that she has passed him, falls heavily to the pavement. When she turns back, checks that he’s okay, and says that she’s pleased to have met him, he returns the acknowledgement “you really knocked me off my feet”. This is definitely part of what he later calls the Michael J. Fox character, but what becomes clear watching Still is that, to some degree, that character was always an inextricable part of Michael Fox, it comes through throughout Guggenheim’s interview, it’s glimpsed in footage of a younger Fox playing with his kids, and it never feels like a suit he’s wearing.
Another notable thing about Parkinson’s is, of course, what it does to a patient’s voice. Fox now often struggles to get words out and sometimes stammers. Given that, it’s fascinating to see him recording parts of the voiceover (regarding one difficult part, Guggenheim asks “who wrote that”, “some asshole”, Fox replies). The first glimpse of this when he’s doing exercises: sitting opposite a speech therapist and stretching his mouth in a silent scream, to help him find some flexibility to get the words out. Between this, the sessions with his trainer, and the many injuries he reports sustaining during the shooting process, we can see just how difficult it is to live day to day when you have Parkinson’s and want to be as active as Fox clearly aspires to remain.
Fox explicitly asks that no one pity him, and yet it’s tough not to feel a sense of loss, especially if, as I did, you grew up on his films. Away from the interview and the candid footage, Guggenheim uses a few reconstructions to tell the story (always viewing the Fox figure from behind), but mostly builds the narrative out of clips of his work. These clips are used in a unique way, seldom, if ever, to reflect of the quality of the work, but more to chart the behind camera story. First there are clips of Fox and his wife, the actress Tracy Pollan, working together on Family Ties and Bright Lights, Big City. We also see Pollan with him in the present day footage, and whether it’s in fiction or reality, there’s always an obvious spark between them. In perhaps the film’s sweetest moment, as he speaks about his wife, Fox grabs a photo of her, signed to someone else, which he says he bought for a dollar at The Strand bookstore, to my understanding before they got together, and displays to this day.
Perhaps the most interesting passage of film clips (and a great example of why editor Michael Harte, who also cut the likes of Three Identical Strangers and Don’t F**k With Cats, might be the MVP of the film) happens when the voiceover begins describing Fox’s early tremor symptoms, and the way he would often try to be doing something with his left hand in order to mask it on screen. Harte finds several pieces from the likes of The Concierge (AKA For Love or Money), Spin City and other early to mid 90s projects that seem to show this. The clips are never addressed specifically, so it may be, as much of the rest of the editing is, simply a masterclass in the Kuleshov effect, but it absolutely creates the impression that we’re seeing what the v/o is describing.
The film isn’t entirely a hagiography, indeed it spends a lot of time on the period of early success that saw Fox believing his own hype and, by his own admission, being a bit of an asshole (it seems like The Hard Way’s Nick Lang was closer to the real guy, for a while, than many realised). It also covers the alcoholism he fell into as a way to numb the pain of his diagnosis in quite some detail, but Fox tells the tale with such charm that we never really judge him in these moments.
I’d say that Still made me miss Michael J. Fox, and certainly it made me want to go back and visit The Back to the Future films, The Hard Way, The Frighteners and to get round to seeing the likes of Bright Lights, Big City and Light of Day, but the real point of this movie is that Michael J. Fox is still very much there. He’s as charming and his mind as quick as ever, it’s just that the thought doesn’t always connect to the mouth or the body as quickly as once it did. All in all it’s a reflective film but not a depressing one, and we get the sense that Fox has more to do yet, even if it’s off camera.
STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE will be in select cinemas and streaming globally on Apple TV+ on May 12