Intimate, Entertaining “Still” Lets Michael J. Fox Share His Story in His Own Words

9 May

There’s a scene in Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, where the actor best known for his performances as Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly in Family Ties and the Back to the Future trilogy acknowledges the heavy weight of responsibility that comes with being such a beloved public figure. “I don’t want to fuck it up,” he says.

When a celebrity allows a filmmaker to tell their life story in a documentary, as so many have done in recent years, that’s probably a big worry. We’ve all watched plenty of Behind the Music episodes, and we’ve seen plenty of sympathetic clip-fests about actors, sports figures, politicians, and other famous folks. Often, they’re driven by vanity or an attempt to rehabilitate a damaged reputation. Sometimes it’s purely a nostalgia trip. Either way, at this point, we know the tropes that many of these films follow all too well. Every now and then, one rises above the rest (Gleason and Amy are two of the better examples), but it’s easy to be cynical since so many of these films adhere to a conventional format.

I’d imagine Fox hesitated before he allowed a movie to be made about his own life. After all, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease when he was just 29 years old, at the peak of his career. Since then, he hasn’t sought out pity. Rather, he’s conducted himself with grit and grace, applying his well known name and his abundant optimism to fundraising campaigns and other efforts that will help others like him who have Parkinson’s. 

A less skilled filmmaker would probably seize on the obvious storyline, portraying Fox’s fast rise to fame via a greatest-hits collection of film and TV clips, and then cover his slow decline from the disease, with a coda to contribute funds to support the foundation that bears his name. As Fox himself says in the film, “That’s boring.”

Clearly, he’s not the only person who thought so, and thank God for that. 

Still was made by Davis Guggenheim, a talented filmmaker with a knack for turning his subjects (even the seemingly boring ones) into compelling and unconventional cinematic experiences. For example, he adapted Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation about global warming into the urgent Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and in Waiting for “Superman”, made a persuasive case that the problems with America’s public school system are everyone’s problem. 

Here, Guggenheim dispenses with many of the expected tropes, instead telling Fox’s story in an honest, unflinching way that never veers into hagiography and doesn’t portray him as a victim. The result is a beautiful film that’s tough but inspiring, and one of my favorites of the year.

(Now is probably a good time for me to mention that, when it comes to Fox and Parkinson’s Disease, I’m hardly unbiased. My father has had Parkinson’s for many years, and I have donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research multiple times. Suffice it to say, I am unable to watch this film objectively.)

Still traces Fox’s life and career from its earliest days in Canada to the present day in New York, using re-enactments, archival footage, and audio from Fox’s self-narrated audiobooks (such as Lucky Man). The master stroke, however, is how Davis, with the help of his editor, Michael Harte (Three Identical Strangers), uses clips from Fox’s filmography, out of context, to tell Fox’s story. Everything from the BTTF films and Teen Wolf to The Secret of My Success and Life with Mikey is included. It’s a unique way to tell the story, and the effect is undeniably entertaining. 

The retconned clips effectively portray the propulsive way in which Fox broke through and became a household name, a true superstar in his 20s who at one time was the star of a top-rated sitcom and the number-one and number-two movies in the country. “The boy prince of Hollywood,” as he describes himself. 

And then, at age 29, Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, the incurable degenerative brain disease that causes those afflicted to have slurred speech and tremors, among other symptoms.

Fox hid his diagnosis for years, strategically timing doses of his medications to align with film shoots, and Still recounts the toll that took on him — until the day in 1998 (while starring in the sitcom Spin City) that he went public and shared his condition with the world. Since then, Fox, now 61 years old, has become a fundraising force for Parkinson’s research. His eponymous foundation has raised more than $1.5 billion, and last month, it announced a research breakthrough: a biomarker for Parkinson’s that could mean faster diagnosis and treatment. And he is, quite simply, one of the greatest ambassadors for raising awareness of the disease.

Guggenheim clearly recognizes this, and that’s why the film is most powerful in the understated moments, when it shows Fox just talking to the camera (it’s hard not to notice all the quick cuts), or going about his daily life: struggling to walk, working with a physical therapist and a speech therapist, interacting with his family (including his wife of nearly 35 years, Tracy Pollan), and dealing with the toll the disease has on his body.

We see Fox fall multiple times, and we hear about other incidents that happened when the cameras weren’t rolling. Through it all, Fox displays his characteristic toughness and optimism, speaking candidly about his broken bones and bruises. And the film indicates that while Parkinson’s may have taken some things away, Fox’s quick wit is still very much intact.

While Fox is often seen downplaying his condition and the risks involved, or cracking a joke to disarm others, it’s obvious that things have gotten more difficult for him in recent years, and those around him are concerned. In one of the more touching scenes, Fox and his son, Sam, are talking, and Sam says, “It’s great what you’re saying, but I’d rather you not fall over.” As someone whose own father has fallen multiple times, and who has said similar things, that line hit hard.

Anyway, Guggenheim thankfully doesn’t fill the film with talking heads paying tribute to Fox’s acting career or celebrating his strength and perseverance. The film also doesn’t make an overt effort to fundraise. In other words, this is not a typical celebrity biography. This is Michael J. Fox sharing his own story, in as intimate a way as possible, and in the process, showing that a diagnosis of this sort is not a death sentence. It’s challenging, for sure, but there’s still plenty of life left for him to live.

Early on in the film, Fox compares himself to a cockroach, of all things. “I’m a tough son of a bitch,” he says. “I’ve been through a lot.” Of course, no one likes cockroaches. But we do love Michael J. Fox. And after watching Still, it’s impossible not to love him even more.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is a must-see. I’m giving it an A.

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