By David Fear
Michael J. Fox traces his ground-zero moment to waking up after a bender in 1990 in a house in Florida. He awakes in a state that, well…to call it “hungover” would be too kind. He can barely remember what he did the evening before — all he knows is that it involved a very late night, a lot of liquor and Woody Harrelson. The light is shining through his window in the late morning, or maybe it’s the early afternoon, but either way, man, it’s way too bright.
Fox lifts his hand to shield his bloodshot eyes and then notices the pinky finger on his left hand is moving. Not just moving: it is rapidly “auto-animated,” to quote the Back to the Future star and 1980s celebrity icon. He watches the dancing digit, fascinated by how it feels like he’s observing someone else’s finger do this, on someone else’s hand, attached to someone else’s body. Only Fox knows it is indeed his finger,; it’s just that his body is beginning, very slowly and subtly, to betray him. “The trembling was a message from the future,” he says. A threshold has been crossed in a blink.
This is how STILL: A Michael J. Fox Story starts, and though we know where this story goes, it’s nonetheless a shock to see this moment of realization play out before you, even in a recreation featuring a younger actor playing the 29-year-old star. That’s one of the tricks and stylistic go-to’s that director Davis Guggenheim uses to bring the film’s subtitle to life. He’ll also use a lot of clips of Fox’s work, from an early McDonald’s commercial to late Spin City episodes and everything in between, occasionally intercut to overly clever effect; TV interviews, talk show appearances and red carpet blasts from the past; and a barrage of old photos and home movies. Celebrity portrait 101, right?
But Guggenheim and his subject also want to show what it’s like to be Michael J. Fox right now, and that’s really where this documentary, which premiered at Sundance today, turns into something else entirely — something beyond praise or tragedy. The Parkinson’s disease that announced itself to Fox that morning in 1990, that he tried to drink away in an endless binge until he finally got sober (an experience he calls “a knife fight in a closet”), that he hid from the public for seven years until he could not hide it any more, has left him physically compromised. He has trouble walking, and recently suffered a number of injuries related to falling. Just when he’s healed from one surgery, another accident sets him back to square one. The trembling remains, more extreme than ever.
Yet the illness has left him debilitated but not broken, and while that part has become a big part of the Michael J. Fox story — almost as much as the stratospheric rise to fame and the party-animal period and the pivot to advocating for more research funding for a cure — STILL lets you see first-hand how Fox has turned an accentuate-the-positive aspect into something like a superpower. Self-pity is not an option. Family has become a priority, which Fox claims was not always the case. He’s retained a wicked sense of humor, which he uses to both buoy himself up, deflect from his disease and put others at ease. One early sequence has him tumbling to the pavement when he and his companion-slash-trainer leave the house. A female neighbor rushes to help him. “I’m ok, I’m ok,” Fox insists. “You just knocked me off my feet.”
If you’ve read any of the four books Fox has published since he went public with his Parkinson’s, you know the road he’s traveled to remain upbeat and make the best — or rather, the very best — of a bad situation. (His readings of those books, by the way, provide a good deal of the voiceovers for STILL and remind you what a sharp writer he is. See: that “knife fight in a closet” statement above, and his description of himself circa 1986 as “the boy prince of Hollywood, made out of bubblegum.”) But the way the doc intersperses his reminiscences about his success, his private moments with wife Tracy Pollan and their kids, and the extremely honest and vulnerable new interviews he does with Guggenheim, makes all of that positivity in the face of adversity seem like anything but cheap platitudes. It’s a philosophy, born out of necessity or not. Parkinson’s has robbed him of some mobility but not his life. The doc’s title takes on a double meaning. Stillness is a luxury no longer available to him, something he has to work hard to achieve. It also reminds you that Fox isn’t giving up. He’s still very much here.
As if the film was not evidence enough of that, then there was Fox himself, being helped to the stage and basking in a minutes-long standing ovation in a very packed Eccles Theater. He positively radiated during the Q&A, gamely fielding questions about Christopher Lloyd (“He’s still looking for the craft’s services table,” he quipped, before extolling his Back to the Future costar’s genius) and why he wanted to tell this story now (“I like where my mind takes me, and I fear that going as well”). At one point during the documentary, he talked about the burden of being an inspiration — how tough it was to be “Michael J. Fox” when he felt horrible some days. But you could see how, in the film’s more candid moments and being in front of a crowd who came out to support him, Fox can’t help but be inspiring simply by being Michael J. Fox. “It’s an amazing fucking life,” he said, in reply to one question about dealing with illness. “And I’m glad to enjoy it.”
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