Michael J. Fox tells his own story in “Still,” which director Davis Guggenheim treats as “a Michael J. Fox movie” by remixing clips from throughout the Emmy-winning actor’s career with cleverly restaged scenes from his private life. That’s a fun way to frame it, seeing as how the emotional crowd-pleaser stars Fox and features so many of the feels fans of “Family Ties,” “Back to the Future” and “Spin City” expect from him. Fox is a charismatic guy, and even though his personal story has been overshadowed by Parkinson’s disease, Guggenheim’s upbeat and ultra-polished documentary reminds what a peppy, relatable personality he was — and is — on-screen.
Fox may have grown up in Canada, but so many Americans feel like they grew up alongside him. Nearly a decade older than he looked, Fox had a knack for embodying faux-confident teenage awkwardness, and though he remembers how the network nearly nixed his breakthrough role on NBC sitcom “Family Ties,” the rest of us can’t imagine the show — or our childhoods — without him. Which is why it was a collective setback to learn that Fox had been diagnosed at 29 with Parkinson’s, a brain disease that causes some muscles to shake uncontrollably and others not to respond at all.
Guggenheim sees Fox as a trouper, focusing on how the actor fought to hide his symptoms for years, burying himself in his work so as not to face his handicap head-on. Today, the actor is a good sport about the terrible things Parkinson’s does to his body, cracking jokes about the tremors and, in the most Michael J. Fox scene of the entire movie, recovering from a spill on a New York sidewalk by calling out to a passing fan: “Nice to meet you! You knocked me off my feet!”
Parkinson’s is inevitably the elephant in the room here, and though it gets a fair amount of attention, the director dedicates nearly the first hour to Fox’s life before the world learned of his diagnosis. Together with archive producer Jackie Cleary, Guggenheim does an astonishing job of finding clips from Fox’s career to suit the story beats, especially during the exciting moment when he was shooting “Back to the Future” and “Family Ties” at the same time (a scene from the latter shows his character, Alex P. Keaton, being asked, “You think you can handle both jobs?”).
Looking back, Fox made it look easy, coming across laid-back and cool while secretly stressed. “The Secret of My Success” appears to be a rich source for clips, providing fun imagery for his very-’80s early professional anxiety. Guggenheim fills in the gaps with original footage, hiring actors of different ages to play Fox at various points, their faces always conveniently off camera. It’s hard to imagine, considering the star Fox became, but there was a moment when he first got to Los Angeles when he rented a one-room apartment in the “slums of Beverly Hills” and lived off fast food and Smucker’s Jam packets.
“I was the boy prince of Hollywood,” recalls Fox, whose marriage to Tracy Pollan makes up a good portion of the film. But fame is fickle, and Fox was scared of what it meant to be diagnosed with a terminal condition at such a young age. Sure, Fox has access to physical trainers and treatments that most Parkinson’s patients don’t; he also bears the scrutiny of an ableist society. The unfair challenge for those living with disabilities is the pressure it puts on them to make others feel comfortable with their condition. Fox never wanted to be the poster boy for Parkinson’s, but if he could sell Pepsi to an entire generation, then it was within his power to raise awareness for the disease that he’d been dealt.
And so he has, embracing roles that incorporate his symptoms — the spasms, the strained facial expressions, the difficulty walking — while pushing back against the kid-glove treatment of people with handicaps. He played a jerk on “The Good Wife” (you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the courtroom clip Guggenheim samples) and sprayed Larry David with soda on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (a clever way of acknowledging his shaking). All told, Fox has raised visibility for the condition significantly, going even farther for this documentary, which lets Guggenheim’s cameras into his home.
Editor Michael Harte (“Three Identical Strangers”) does a terrific job of constructing the overall story, including a few stellar montages. One tracks back through many of Fox’s acting gigs in the ’90s — the decade when he knew but others didn’t of his Parkinson’s — revealing moments where he holds something in his left hand to disguise his symptoms. Guggenheim is the ideal interviewer for the task, asking sincere yet sensitive questions that yield candid answers. He and Harte do something else remarkable: They hold on Fox, including footage most editors would cut in which the actor appears vulnerable in the space between sound bites.
Through “Still,” Fox lets audiences see him as he is now. He’s smaller than many realize, and that’s another source of self-deprecating humor. But allowing his disability to be shown is a kind of strength. A montage of the actor shown running in many of his roles reminds how active he was in his heyday. Still is, testifying before the Senate, participating in this project, inspiring by example.