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You Can Call Me Bill Review: A Piece of the Shat

Going boldly into the actor's rambling mind

10 mins read

You Can Call Me Bill
(USA, 96 min.)
Dir. Alexandre O. Philippe


For over a decade, Alexandre O. Philippe has explored some of the more complex reaches of cinematic lore. His film-on-film filmography ranges from his detailed exploration of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with 2017’s 78/52, his probing look at facehuggers in 2019’s Memory: The Origins of Alien, his portrait of sci-fi fandom in 2010’s The People vs. George Lucas, and his a look at iconoclastic creators such as David Lynch in 2022’s Lynch/Oz and William Friedkin in 2020’s Leap of Faith. His latest work fixates upon a subject that seems to encompass many of these disparate elements, from extra-terrestrial encounters through to more metaphysical meanderings, diving deep into the career and philosophy of the man that generations of fans have called Captain.

You Can Call Me Bill is an affable enough title for Phillipe’s film about William Shatner. We are provided from its opening moments an intimate look at the man as he reflects upon the many facets of his life and career. Now in his ninth decade of life, Shatner receives as safe a space as one could hope for to proffer tales of his roles and performances, as well as deeper ruminations on esoteric concerns.

For viewers looking for a more tabloid-y biopic, they’re going to be disappointed. Every moment is navigated entirely by the single subject, and structured deliberately, almost solipsistically, to be directed from this single point of interest. There’s almost nothing in the way of external reflection, and no other voices brought in to either buttress Bill’s claims or counter any sense of self-aggrandizement. Feeling at once like a mix of a stage show, a private conversation, and the vicarious witnessing of a therapy session, the result in an unadulterated dose of monologuing by this remarkable man as he regales us with whatever it is he wishes to share.

There was a period following the cancellation of Star Trek just before the reruns began and his cult status grew that the theatre-trained actor was struggling within the ever changing media landscape. His stilted yet charismatic cadence as the beloved Captain Kirk was easily mocked, yet the mix of earnestness and charm, along with just enough smarminess to keep things interesting, didn’t always connect in other medium. It was during these years that Shatner began leaning into the whole Shatnerness of it all, with his over-the-top line readings employed in musical settings on television specials and the like, the staccato sprechgesang style resulting in mind-bending performances of recitative ridiculousness.

These heightened portrayals and performances such as his late-’60s take on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on vinyl or the smoky, late-70’s wonder that is “Rocketman”, point to an artist that seemingly takes silly things far seriously while aggressively leaning into the performative nature of it all. It was during this post-Trek decade that the very image many of us still hold of Shatner was solidified, and this film provides a look by Shatner himself at the nature of this image that is clearly carefully constructed while simultaneously simply part of the man’s character and taste.

As the Trek franchise was revitalized on the big screen, and other projects like T.J. Hooker provided different fodder for both fascination and imitation, Shatner’s tics became more etched into collective consciousness. You Can Call Me Bill dances back and forth from these various time periods, interspersing the remembrances with a variety of archive clips that, when you understand Philippe’s editing schema, provide a Greek chorus-like commentary on much of what the Shat has to say.

It’s in these playful cinematic conversations between Shatner’s stories and the performances from the past that elevates the film from a mere testimonial from a man living the last chapters of his long life. The dance between the past and the present in Shatner’s recollection gives much of the energy, sometimes undercutting his most cloying statements. At other times, it belies the downplaying of a particularly powerful performance. The result is a wild, hypertextual bounce between the scripted characters on screens both big and small, and the clearly well-trod stories coming from the man speaking to camera and doling out what surely is wished to be seen as well-honed wisdom.

For those not already interested in the man, the entire thing would surely come across as both indulgent and tedious, the documentary itself superficially almost as pompous and preposterous as those musical interludes in the subject’s career. And yet despite all the easy ways one could simply dismiss the entire thing as merely the ravings of a self-absorbed actor, for those actually open to what’s transpiring, that mindset does a great injustice to the care in which this conversation is curated. Shatner truly has lived a fascinating life. His career is more than a mere multi-year journey towards strange new worlds, his acting acuity not so easily summed up by imitation. Similarly, his more recent journeys do show a level of heightened, if not downright poetic appreciation for the nature of our world. While, again, the cynic may dismiss all this as cloying, for those with more open hearts, the ability to vicariously live through his sense of wonder is both warming and remarkable.

No, you’re not going to hear about any on-set skirmishes or long held grudges, nor is much made about Shatner’s contemporary pleasure in trolling people on social media and excoriating them for what he feels to be foolish takes. The documentary affords him the time to appreciate idols like Brando and Olivier, two fascinatingly different touchstones in 20th century acting styles, as well as welcome discussion about his early years growing up as an Anglo-Jew in Montreal. We of course hear about his beloved horses, but don’t spent much time on the many tragedies that have clouded him over the years, especially the much reported death of his third wife.

Of course, that simply means there’s space for another, more journalistic take on Shatner’s decades-long life and career. Here, from its welcoming title, we’re encouraged to sit around and take in the stories the man wishes to tell now, stories about the nature of life and the world, stories about his past but also about the present. The clips do the heavy lifting of providing context, and once you settle into the rhythm of the piece, and accept what the film is not, there’s plenty to appreciate.

Is it possible this is an attempt to write one’s own elegy before passing? Is this the way that Shatner wishes us to think of him beyond any of our preconceptions? Perhaps. But thanks to Philippe’s clever commentary, there’s more here to admire than simply the words of the subject. It’s nice a nice thing that we’re told You Can Call Me Bill, providing a less formal, more inviting way in past the William Shatner we’ve come to know over the years. While this invitation surely has another level of performativity about it, it does feel, at its best, that this film provides the most welcoming, most introspective, most unguarded version of an autobiographic conversation that we’re likely to get from the man. It’s perhaps the final word from a man that we still associate journeying to the final frontier.


You Can Call Me Bill opens in select theatres on March 22.


Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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