Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie Is Honest and Heartfelt

Photo: courtesy AppleTV+.

“Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” For many of us, this line means receiving a pleasant shot of pure nostalgia, and its speaker, Michael J. Fox, will forever remain that enthusiastic kid named Marty from the 1980s who, with his eccentric scientist friend “Doc” (Christopher Lloyd), gets entangled in one mind-blowing time-travel adventure in Robert Zemeckis’s science-fiction film Back to the Future (1985). However, as the new documentary Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie by Davis Guggenheim shows, Michael J. Fox was and is, naturally, much more than his most fondly-remembered character.

From the actor’s upbringing in Canada to his audition struggles in Los Angeles, and from his Hollywood success to his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease at the age of just 29, the often touching documentary covers much ground in Fox’s life and career, revealing to us not just one likeable up-and-coming actor who made it big, but also a remarkable person who had never stopped being his optimistic and funny self, even when confronting and battling a frightening medical condition.

Having previously directed such documentaries on stories that matter as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and He Named Me Malala (2015), Davis Guggenheim is comfortably positioned to tackle the life and work of the famous Canadian-American actor. The film starts with Michael J. Fox, who had already got his big break in Hollywood, discovering the first worrying sign of his Parkinson’s disease —his twitching little finger. The film will return to this frightening episode in Michael’s life, but not before producing a rather hectic biographical overview of the actor’s life. Michael was first an active, younger-than-his-peers-looking child, and then that shortish guy at school with a knack for cracking jokes. He got his first acting break with the Canadian series Leo and Me (1977-1978) before moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. It is there that he finally gained considerable success with sitcom Family Ties (1982-1989), and, while still being cast in it, was chosen for his now iconic role in the Back to the Future trilogy.

Michael J. Fox and Jay Leno in on the set of the Tonight Show in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Michael J. Fox and Jay Leno in on the set of the Tonight Show in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. Photo: courtesy AppleTV+.

Film starts “imitating” life, and vice versa, early on in the documentary as Michael’s life is told through episodes taken from his films, and these scenes “fuse” with the actor’s real life events. This is supported by Fox’s own off-screen narration, his interview with Guggenheim, and his filmed interactions with both his dutiful therapist and devoted wife Tracy Pollan. The fluidity of the editing, compliments of Michael Harte (Three Identical Strangers (2018)), leaves quite an impression, and Fox becomes an unlikely “star” in the film of his own life, a life that is portrayed as being suffused with irony. It turns out that the actor had numerous obstacles to overcome on his path to stardom, including three years of unsuccessful Hollywood auditions and his sceptics, who did not believe in his potential. And, it is while showing some pivotal moments in the actor’s life, including him landing a coveted role of Marty McFly or dealing courageously with his progressively debilitating condition, that the documentary truly shines, channeling Michael’s personality, casting aside his onscreen persona, and letting the actor tell his story in his own words.

Tracy Pollan, Sam Fox, Esme Fox and Michael J. Fox in .STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie.
Tracy Pollan, Sam Fox, Esme Fox and Michael J. Fox in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. Photo: courtesy  Apple TV+.

Fox performed feats worthy of any Clark Kent-to-Superman transformation when he had to shuffle two different roles, one that had to be filmed in daytime (Family Ties) and another, at night (Back to the Future). How, after all that hassle, can any of them be any good?, the actor wondered at that time. He would be in for a surprise. However, no hero’s journey is without its immense struggles, and after his shocking 1991 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Fox initially struggled to cope, living in denial and relying on his hectic filming schedule and medication to hide his already emerging and frightening Parkinson’s disease symptoms. “Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well”, said once Robert Louis Stevenson, and just as Fox once persevered through his Hollywood auditions, he finally disclosed to the world his diagnosis in 1998 and keeps courageously persevering through the worst that Parkinson’s throws at him, demonstrating to the world that disease never defines you, you define it.

Michael J. Fox laughs in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie.
Michael J. Fox in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. Photo: courtesy Apple TV+.

The documentary brushes past Fox’s childhood, his relationship with his wife and children, and the full extent of his admirable Parkinson’s disease advocacy, but what documentary can possibly do justice to all aspects of a human life in a limited time allocated, especially when the portrait to be painted is that of one successful actor who confronted an incurable disease at the very peak of his Hollywood career? This documentary, which is even filmed in Fox’s own humorous and uplifting style, simply chose to focus on two questions: What is it like to gain unexpected Hollywood success and then “cope” with it? What is it like to confront and deal with a serious and unexpected medical condition?

In Back to the Future Part II (1989), Fox portrays a character that does everything to help save Hill Valley, California from its grim, crime-ridden and dictatorial future, but in real life, heroism often means making a difference in a smaller way, and for some, it may simply mean not giving up when faced with impossibly hard circumstances, possessing courage to confront a distressing reality or just having faith in another day. When dealing with the actor’s exciting film-world or the sad reality of his diagnosis, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie never loses that special spark, the actor’s very own.

Still premieres May 12, 2023 on Apple TV+.

Written by Diana Tuova

I am a critic and writer with a background in law. I run two criticism-focused websites: Spotlight on Film and Thoughts on Papyrus, and love films by Tarkovsky, Ozu, Bresson and Buñuel. Apart from my passion for film and writing, I also love travelling, reading classics and learning Japanese.

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