Even before Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he had a hard time sitting still. It was part of his go-getter attitude that made him a superstar while he was still in his 20s — to say nothing of how effectively it translated to the screen in all his memorable characters. It was like he radiated a particular brand of disarming charm.
When Fox told his high school teacher back in Canada he was leaving to go act in Los Angeles, his teacher told him he was making a mistake: “You won’t be cute forever.” Joke’s on that guy. Today Fox is 61 years old, still cute, still funny and still in front of a camera.
His latest, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie from documentarian Davis Guggenheim, opens May 12 in select theaters and on Apple TV+. At once a career retrospective and a portrait of Fox’s daily struggles with Parkinson’s disease — he was diagnosed in 1991 — Still manages to not feel like exploitation by employing Fox as a collaborator rather than a subject. It’s the story of a plucky kid who rises, falls a little and then gets back up to face another day. And if that sounds like a typical Michael J. Fox movie to you, well, you’re not far off.
Frankness has always been one of Fox’s greatest assets as a performer — playing exacerbated is another — and he brings that quality into Still. In one section, Fox explains that his Parkinson’s first manifested as uncontrollable tremors in his left hand; and to cover it up for the camera, he would constantly give his hands something to do. If you watched Spin City back in the mid-1990s, Fox’s twitchy performance as deputy mayor Mike Flaherty felt electric, as if he had so many problems to handle he couldn’t possibly sit still.
That was before Fox went public with his diagnosis in 1998. Not long after, Fox returned to TV as a visiting doctor on Scrubs suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. By then, most people watching knew what was happening behind the scenes, giving the performance an extra edge. Not that any of Fox’s performances have ever needed an edge.
Which makes Still’s construction feel somewhat counterintuitive. Guggenheim and editor Michael Harte deftly edit together various Fox performances from Family Ties, the Back to the Future trilogy, Doc Hollywood and so on, as if they are all B-roll footage accompanying Fox’s memories. (The shot of Fox groggily waking up in his mother’s bed in Back to the Future is used to illustrate the long hours Fox worked making movies while shooting weekly TV episodes.) But not even Fox’s catalog has enough footage to fill in all the gaps, so Guggenheim cooks up new footage, cleverly shot so as not to linger on faces or specifics, in an attempt to blend in with the preexisting footage. It almost works. But it also feels like a cheat.
What isn’t a cheat is Fox: his life, his love, his demons and his diagnosis. As he talks to Guggenheim’s camera, treating it like a friend he enjoys catching up with, Fox creates a welcoming space to tackle difficult material while having a good laugh.
ON SCREEN: Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie will screen at the Denver Film Center and stream on Apple TV+ starting May 12.