“The walking really freaks people out,” Michael J. Fox explains in his Apple-produced documentary, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” directed by Davis Guggenheim. And, sure enough, it is striking to see him struggle to amble down a New York City sidewalk with his physical therapist by his side. A dog barks at him. Other people say hello. And then he falls.
He’s not wrong. It does initially “freak you out” to see Fox’s Parkinson’s in full effect in the film. It’s without a doubt upsetting to understand the pain of his body or to watch a makeup artist cover up the spot where he broke bones in his face falling. For as distressing as that sounds, Fox is nothing if not a likable figure, and he and Guggenheim have crafted a likable film about both his suffering and resilience without turning him into a martyr. It’s not without some of the conventional beats of a star-driven documentary, but it also refuses to turn maudlin when it so easily could.
At its most basic level, “Still” tracks the arc of Fox’s career from small-for-his-age kid in Canada who drops out of high school to the biggest star in Hollywood, and how that shifts when he learns he has Parkinson’s before the age of 30. Fox’s voice dominates the doc, and he is the only talking head to appear. Occasionally, Guggenheim will interject to pose a question to Fox about his mental or physical state, but for the most part this is Fox’s story in Fox’s words.
The wise conceit Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) uses to tell Fox’s story involves recutting the actor’s movie and TV appearances to fit his narration about his real life. This is to say that Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly act out Fox’s ascent to fame. Scenes from “Family Ties” and “Bright Lights, Big City” show his courtship with Tracy Pollan. As he grapples with his denial about the challenges his body faces he also dodges gunfire in “Mars Attacks!” These images of Fox frequently running and doling out punchlines with his perfect timing stand in stark contrast to the footage of Fox in the present day where his mind seems to work faster than his ability to express himself and his legs consistently fail him.
The mashup of images from Fox’s career also, in some moments, reveal more than just his talent and star quality. As Fox explains that, post-diagnosis, he would hold props in his left hand to hide his tremors, we see that in action, the thing he was trying so hard to hide, plainly visible for our eyes.
The choice to illustrate Fox’s life through the projects that made him a star works well in contrast to other devices Guggenheim employs. Joining those clips together with staged recreations of events registers as unnecessarily slick and false. Just as the audience grows used to watching Fox in the events of his own life, Guggenheim cuts to the back of an actor’s head standing in for Fox to connect the events of the story together. The heavy shadows and slow motion that define these moments feel artificial compared to Fox’s candor.
And Fox is open — not just about his disease, but about his personal failings as well. He discusses how, even before Parkinson’s, he was an absent husband and father chasing fame over his family. He describes turning to alcohol instead of grappling with the reality of his circumstances in the years before he was public with his Parkinson’s. The unsavory idea of Michael J. Fox: The Jerk lingers just under the surface of “Still,” and is a concept that Guggenheim addresses but doesn’t want to fully explore.
Though “Still” is not quite a hagiography, it’s also not a movie that wants to look too deeply at its subject’s admitted flaws. This leaves a little hole in the portrait being presented. Parkinson’s strains Fox’s body, making each movement a fight. At the same time, he seemingly argues it made him a more honest, more loving person. The loss and gains implicit in that tradeoff are monumental to ponder. Instead, “Still” opts for a more cheery, less inquisitive finale.
Maybe that’s all you can expect. The subtitle tells us this is “A Michael J. Fox Movie” as if to telegraph that it will provide all the nostalgia and charm of the work that made him such an unusual and appealing figure in the Hollywood firmament. It’s indeed a great reminder of what a pleasure it is to watch Fox on screen. It’s also a little bit more when it’s not afraid to freak people out.
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released by Apple later this year.