What Michael J. Fox Figured Out
How do you maintain optimism as things keep getting worse?
At first, it was just Michael J. Fox’s pinky that was fluttering. Years later, his whole upper body was rocking back and forth. Now, at age 61, Fox struggles to walk down the street without falling over. No amount of money or celebrity can change the manifestations of his degenerative neurological condition, Parkinson’s disease. He routinely breaks bones: in his hand, his arm, his face. “You lose this game,” a doctor once told him.
By that description, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, a new documentary about Fox’s life and battle with Parkinson’s, sounds like a downer. It’s not. And yet the film, which will be released on Apple TV+ this Friday, doesn’t land squarely in the “inspirational movie” category, either.
Still is filled with nostalgia and montage and booming ’80s music, but it’s also a portrait of resilience, and the toll resilience takes on the mind and body. The movie doesn’t want you to feel bad for Fox, but to simply consider what it’s like to navigate life with an omnipresent physical challenge—how, for example, you may take for granted your ability to brush your teeth or hold a glass.
It also seeks to answer one of life’s thornier questions: How do you maintain optimism as things keep getting worse?
Fox was just 23 when he made Back to the Future. He wouldn’t receive his diagnosis for another six years; he’d work to conceal his symptoms for an additional seven. Throughout the ’90s, he’d film scenes while fiddling with a pen, or rubbing his watch, or slyly stuffing one hand in his pocket. Off camera, he dissociated: drinking to excess, swallowing a steady stream of pills. This was more than basic coping. Hiding his diagnosis wasn’t merely an act of shame but a survival method to keep working in a notoriously ableist industry. Eventually, he got sober, and in 1998 went public with his condition, part of the process of making peace with what was going on in his body. But that acceptance doesn’t change the fact that the minutiae of his daily life remain taxing, and the film leans into that tension.
The director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman”) deploys copious clips from Fox’s film and TV library in pastiche to help tell the story. (His production company, Concordia Studio, is funded by Laurene Powell Jobs and Emerson Collective, which also owns The Atlantic.) Because Fox’s pre-Parkinson’s acting career took place almost four decades ago, it may be hard to remember just how huge a star he was. Back to the Future was No. 1 at the box office for 11 weeks, the highest-grossing film of 1985. In August of that year, Teen Wolf, also starring Fox, debuted at No. 2. Over the next three years, he’d go on to win three consecutive Emmys for his lead role on Family Ties. “I was big, bigger than bubblegum,” Fox says in Still.
Before Parkinson’s derailed his life, Fox’s boundless energy meant he was constantly in motion. Throughout the documentary, we see him literally running through dozens of scenes, a visual metaphor for how he attempted to flee the reality of his situation until he could finally push himself toward a place of acceptance. However, even that component of the movie is not a perfectly carved arc. The messy truth is that Fox’s daily life with Parkinson’s, like anyone’s, keeps getting harder. Although his gratitude continues to grow with age, so, too, does his frustration. It’s Fox’s honesty about all of this—and Guggenheim’s presentation of that happy/sad gray area of disability—that makes Still a compelling watch. “He is subverting your expectation of what you think he is,” Guggenheim told me by phone this week.
Fox has always had natural comedic timing and remains witty, even if his presently slurred speech makes it tougher for his jokes to land. For the film, Fox participated in seven sessions of on-camera interviews over the course of a year. The movie also uses bits of Fox’s audiobook narration from his four books, the first of which was published more than 20 years ago, when certain aspects of his condition were less pronounced. (Namely, his voice was clearer.) Guggenheim told me that, from a continuity perspective, he was worried about variations in the sound of Fox’s tenor. In the end, though, it doesn’t seem to matter. Time—the way it paradoxically both slogs and passes in bursts—is a central element of the film. From beginning to end, you can still hear that approachable kid-next-door scratch in the back of Fox’s throat, even when he swallows his words.
“It’s a testament to him—he just presents as he presents,” Guggenheim said. “It’s shocking, I think, to see this movie star who we grew up knowing as young and fit and actually very nimble and graceful in how he moved be this guy now in his 60s kind of walking uncomfortably.
“But his attitude about it is ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to be myself,’ and ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna talk this way on camera.’ He never stopped and said, ‘Let me say that again.’ He never said, ‘Can you please portray me a certain way?’ He just barreled through. What he signaled to me was: As long as I’m communicating what I communicate, I don’t really care. Which is actually, in every way, the opposite of my experience making documentaries. Like, in every documentary, the subject has some kind of perception of how they’re presented, and wants to be really careful about that perception. I think because Michael has been through a lot, he just feels like, I’ve got nothing to hide. I am who I am. I want to come through and I want to be understood.”
Beyond Fox, the hero of Still is his wife, Tracy Pollan, whom he met on the set of Family Ties at the height of his success. Unlike others around him at the time, she didn’t bow down to the big star, which made him fall for her. Guggenheim portrays their life with children as one of love and laughter, though Fox notably opens up about the burden that falls on many partners of people with disabilities—another prickly topic that is often brushed over in these sorts of films. It’s refreshing to see Fox articulate what his wife has had to carry, and to watch his family playfully roast him at home. These scenes illustrate a larger truth: Disabled people don’t want your pity.
And yet, even that idea is another source of tension. For more than two decades, Fox has used his life story to bring attention and funding to all things Parkinson’s. On a more personal level, he seems to loathe the concept of being looked at as a walking charity case. Nevertheless, he’s very much the face of this disease, and his foundation has funded groundbreaking research that may one day yield successful treatments, or even a cure. He understands the public need for a feel-good narrative: Could such progress be made without a likable protagonist?
Guggenheim told me that Fox’s self-deprecating humor was what made him want to make the film. For all he lost of his old life, for all the parts of his identity that slowly disappeared like in that famous Back to the Future family photo, Fox, as he aged, seemed to be coloring in new corners of himself. Will viewers watch Still to relive their favorite Michael J. Fox movies, or to gawk at his life with Parkinson’s? Can you even isolate just one era of someone’s life like that?
“I wanted that thing he had found,” Guggenheim said.
It’s not unadulterated happiness, exactly, but something more complex.
Perhaps Fox sums it up best himself in the film: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”