Documentary on actor Michael J. Fox is unflinching, joyful look at living with Parkinson’s
LOS ANGELES – Michael J. Fox was one of the brightest stars in 1980s Hollywood, with hits such as the time-travel comedy Back To The Future (1985) and sitcom Family Ties (1982 to 1989).
But the fairy tale took a dark turn when, at age 29, he received a shocking diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s disease – a debilitating and incurable brain disorder that leads to difficulties with movement, cognition and speech.
Yet Fox insisted there be “no violins” or any attempt at evoking pity for him in an acclaimed new documentary about his life, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which debuts on Apple TV+ on Friday.
Instead, the uplifting film, which has a 98 per cent critics’ rating on review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, is full of laughter and optimism.
And so is the actor himself as he chats with The Straits Times and other media at a Zoom press event for the film, which includes frank conversations with Fox and those close to him.
It also takes an unflinching look at the challenges of day-to-day living for Fox, who says it gets tougher to deal with his Parkinson’s symptoms every day.
But it was important to the 61-year-old Canadian-American star to reveal more of this private struggle in the film, despite having already written about much of it in four memoirs published over the last two decades.
“With all that I’ve experienced the last few years, the avenues I have to express my creativity or get my feelings out have diminished,” says Fox, who won three Emmys for Family Ties, and two for the sitcom Spin City (1996 to 2002) and comedy-drama Rescue Me (2004 to 2011).
“I can’t do certain things I used to do, but I can tell stories, and the stories I know best are my own stories,” says the performer, who retired from acting in 2021 due to his health. “And I found that as I told them to people, they understood them on other levels, and that in turn informed me in ways I wasn’t aware of.”
Director Davis Guggenheim says Fox “was totally an open book and nothing was off the table” when it came to what was shown in the documentary.
“But the one thing he said was important to him was ‘no violins’,” says Guggenheim, 59.
“There are a lot of movies about people who have struggles, and sometimes those movies lean on pity, but that’s not Michael,” adds the film-maker, who produced the Oscar-winning climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
“That’s not the tone of how he lives, that’s not the message of his books, and that’s certainly not the message of this movie. There’s a lot of joy in this movie.”
Asked if he was hesitant to reveal anything about the reality of living with his condition, Fox says: “I don’t know if there was hesitancy to reveal it, but when I saw it, it was shocking to me.
“I understand the idea of my face going blank, or the lack of expression, (but) I don’t always know what I look like, and not that it bothers me, but it’s a shock when you see it.”
But he adds that Guggenheim shot it beautifully.
“It could have been confrontational, but it was cathartic, the close-up stuff,” says the star.
The documentary is also unusual in that it uses scenes from Fox’s films and television shows to illustrate his life.
“We use a lot of footage from Michael’s movies to portray moments like when he meets Tracy Pollan,” Guggenheim says of Fox’s 62-year-old American wife, whom he met when she played his girlfriend on Family Ties, and with whom he has four children aged 21 to 33.
“I was really excited to try making a documentary that feels like an 1980s movie – something that’s big and fun with a lot of laughs. So it’s a different kind of documentary. It’s a wild ride in a way that those movies felt like at the time.”
Guggenheim also credits Fox with much of the documentary’s humour.
Says Fox: “My thing in any situation is: ‘What’s funny about it?’ You can always find the part that’s sad and tragic and that can bring you down.
“It’s more of a challenge – but much more rewarding – to find what’s universally human in this. And I find what’s universally human is usually universally funny.”
* Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie debuts on Apple TV+ on Friday.