Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
(USA, 95 min.)
Dir. Davis Guggenheim
Programme: Premieres (World Premiere)
“I’m a tough sonofabitch. I’m a cockroach and I’ve been through a lot of stuff”
So begins Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, Davis Guggenheim’s sympathetic and engaging portrait of the beloved actor who dominated both small screen and blockbuster films in the 1980s and early 1990s. From Fox’s breakthrough role in Family Ties playing the acerbic conservative child of hippie parents, he achieved international superstardom when he replaced Eric Stoltz weeks into filming the Steven Spielberg produced, Robert Zemeckis directed time travel romp Back to the Future.
For viewers who were not around during these heady times, it’s difficult to explain just how massive the draw was to this charismatic Canadian. Fox’s charm, quick wit, and diminutive figure made him perfect for playing these often quite precocious roles, clowning around in ways that contrasted with his boyish looks. “I was a cute elf,” Fox admits in the film. This mix of brashness and approachability arguably fueled his celebrity status.
However, Fox held a secret for almost a decade about a debilitating illness that would eventually take away full control of his motor functions. For many people, Michael J. Fox will be remembered far more for his Parkinson’s diagnosis and philanthropic work in that sector, raising billions over the years to look for some relief for those that suffer with the condition, than for his acting.
Structurally the film treads familiar formal ground, employing talking head interviews, film clips, dramatic recreations, and some unstructured moments. What sets Guggenheim’s film apart, of course, is not only the immense charm of his subject, but also how the very act of sitting for these interviews is an act of physical defiance to a disease wishing to knock things asunder.
The title of Still therefore takes on multiple meanings. It’s a contradiction to just about every phase in Fox’s life. He was unable to stay still as a child, a small kid running away from bullies and keeping ahead of those around him. After a brief period on Canadian television, he took the leap to Hollywood, grinding it out for a few years before he got his giant break on his sitcom. Originally set to focus on the parents, it was Fox’s face that soon defined that massive hit with the rest of the ensemble for better or worse serving to support him.
Five features in three years, as well as the grind of the television schedule, showed again his inability to sit still. While he would never again quite see the massive success of his first released project, there was a time when he was quite a bankable star. The documentary hints at some of the periods of debauchery (joined by fellow TV-star Woody Harrelson on one memorable bender), but quickly introduces the moment in 1990 when things felt off, and when a finger on his left side could not be controlled. It was an alien feeling, a portentous lack of stillness that would slowly encroach to dominate his every day experience.
Guggenheim cleverly intercuts scenes from various projects with interstitial recreations of moments from the star’s real life, while a droll voiceover drawn from his memoir is read in Fox’s own voice. This allows the audience not only insight into the past but how some scenes can be recontextualized through the lens of the diagnosis, spotting the way the actor would grasp or spin around objects with his left hand to try and stave off the overt systems. At the time, everyone from the production to the audience was oblivious to what was taking place. Years later, though, we can see the very real struggle through Fox’s eyes and the abject fear about all that was soon to be taken away.
Yet the film never devolves into a pity party, and the clever use of Vampire Weekend’s “Harmony Hall,” with the lyric “I don’t wanna live like this/But I don’t wanna die,” speaks to the central ethos of both the documentary and its subject. There’s nothing glowing about watching Fox do his physio, or fall down when a fan spots him on the streets of New York, yet we’re charmed by his clearly rehearsed response to the concerned citizen about sweeping him off his feet.
It’s only at the end that Davis finally gets through to the issue of pain, recognizing that not all is strength and courage. This dimensional portrait sets the film apart. While it easily could be dismissed as contrived, the instead result feels like we’re genuinely getting to the truth of some of these struggles. This aspect might be most crucial in terms of drawing audiences in, not for voyeuristic reasons, but to recognize that this is not just the stuff of the tabloids or the travails of one celebrity. Instead, it shows how one deals with the cruelty of such a condition, and the wish that others with far less means or opportunities would have similar abilities to lessen the manifestation of the disease.
Still is a deserving, well-crafted tale of a remarkable individual, one whose charm remains unabated. It’s an extremely accessible film that will surely be embraced widely by audiences, but to its benefit, it doesn’t always take the easy road. It provides both intimacy and context. It’s to the credit of the filmmakers, and to Fox for his willingness to not only tell his tale, but to do so honestly and without compromise, that the film is a fitting testimonial to the life and career of this remarkable individual.