In STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie, from director Davis Guggenheim, the actor's infectious charisma seeps through the screen as "the boy prince of Hollywood" takes us through his personal journey of being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
“I don't have Parkinson's, but there was something about how he has learned to navigate this that appealed to me.”
'Never still' as a kid in Canada
STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie uses reenactments of Fox's life to visualize intimate moments, with narration by the Emmy-winning actor himself.
The film starts with one of these reenactments, where Fox is hungover from a night out with Woody Harrelson and notices his pinky twitching, one of the first signs of the Parkinson's diagnosis to come.
Those recreated moments are paired with carefully selected clips from Fox's work, including Back To The Future, Spin City and Family Ties, used to tell the actor's life story.
The film takes us back to Fox's upbringing in Canada, describing himself as an active kid who was "never still."
Fox's acting career started after seeing a CBC casting ad in a newspaper. Having some success on the Canadian series Leo and Me, Fox was told that looking like he was about five years younger than his actual age would be attractive in Hollywood, so he made his way to Los Angeles, driving there with his dad.
But Fox had some humbling experiences in the U.S., including having a callback for the film Ordinary People where Robert Redford was flossing his teeth during Fox's audition.
Booking very few jobs, Fox was broke. Living in a small apartment, not able to pay rent and hoarding jam packets from restaurants so he would have food to eat.
Fox actually almost didn't even get his iconic role as Alex Keaton in Family Ties. After Matthew Broderick turned down the role, Fox's name was being lobbed around as a replacement, but NBC executives still weren't convinced, with Brandon Tartikoff saying that Fox's face would never be on a lunchbox.
As we now know, the show was a hit with Fox. The actor even got his revenge by sending Tartikoff a lunchbox with his face on it.
'He loves the film'
Things shifted for Fox when he started noticing the visual cues of the Parkinson's diagnosis to come.
When he was actually diagnosed in 1991, he kept it a secret from the public and the people he worked with.
Clips in STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie show examples of the actor making a point to hold things in his left hand while filming Spin City to mask the tremors. Fox also explained how he would meticulously time his medication to lessen his symptoms, specifically while he was on set.
But Fox also speaks quite candidly about the pain from his body constantly moving, including regularly breaking his bones. He also reveals details from a period early in his diagnosis where he was, as he describes himself, an alcoholic who turned to alcohol to cope with living with this disease. Fox now hasn't had a drink in 30 years.
While Fox is incredibly open, interestingly, Guggenheim initially planned to not have any interview footage in the film.
“I started with the idea that there would be no interviews in the movie,” Guggenheim said. “I just wanted to be carried away with a story.”
STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie doesn't use traditional interview shots. The camera feels so close to Fox, like he's talking directly to the audience and looking in your eyes, which amplifies the impact of the documentary. Guggenheim himself is the perfect interviewer for Fox, having a sensitivity with his questions but also tapping into that sarcastic humour that Fox maintains in the film.
It would be easy for this documentary to lean into the sombre notes of one of pop culture's most beloved human beings struggling with Parkinson's, but STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie gives you a sense of joy with the way it really highlights Fox's witty personality.
Guggenheim revealed that Fox has seen the film and it gets his blessing.
“Michael saw the movie twice,” Guggenheim said. “I wanted to show it to him before we shot the reenactments, and then right before he finished.”
“He loves the film, he's so proud and I will say that it's very difficult for him to travel and he would just give anything to be here tonight and share the movie with you.”
The Hot Docs festival in Toronto runs from April 27 to May 7. The next in-person screenings of STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie are on May 5 and May 7. The film will also be available on Apple TV+ on May 12.