We just watched the extraordinary Michael J. Fox documentary, Still, on Apple TV by Davis Guggenheim.
Of the many adjectives that we might use to describe the Fox-narrated documentary based on his memoirs such as inspiring, uplifting, poignant, touching, revealing, refreshing, candid, eye opening, nostalgic, hard-hitting, unsparing, compelling, and creative, “still” is definitely not one of them.
Which is the entire point.
The very definition of irony is that it expresses the opposite of the literal meaning—for example, when a bald man is called “Curly”, or a short man is called “Stretch”. In this case, the documentary is constantly in motion, cutting between recreations, original footage, and fun clips from Fox’s films and TV shows and so is the actor himself, who sways and fidgets uncontrollably because of a movement disorder called dyskinesia, a common complication of treatment with the dopamine-replacement therapy called levodopa or L-Dopa. Even before his diagnosis, Michael J. Fox was constantly on the move, and constantly running—away from and into trouble, and from job to job.
He began his rise to megastardom as a teenager when he dropped out of high school and with the reluctant blessing of his father came to Hollywood to make it as an actor. Eventually, after a hand-to-mouth existence playing bit parts and so broke that he couldn’t pay his rent or afford food, instead living on Smucker’s jam packets, which he hoarded from restaurants, Fox landed the breakout role of Alex P. Keaton, the conservative character on the TV show, Family Ties. (As a funny aside, Fox was hired over the objections of then NBC President, Brandon Tartikoff, who didn’t see him as a “lunchbox” icon; later at the height of his fame Fox sent Tartikoff an autographed lunchbox with his face on it).
A testament to his exceptionally high energy levels and frankly incredible work ethic, Fox filmed both Family Ties and the hugely successful Back to the Future films at the same time, a grueling schedule during which he literally worked day and night for months. However, stratospheric success was a kind of Faustian bargain, which exacted a heavy price, because on its heels came the shocking diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 29 after he woke up one morning to find his pinky fluttering uncontrollably. As Fox puts it, “the trembling was a message from the future.”
Now busier than ever with his devoted wife, Tracy Pollan, and their children, Fox’s latest and greatest role is as an activist and advocate for Parkinson’s disease, which, on the one hand, curtailed his award-winning acting career, but, on the other, led him to establish the one-of-a-kind Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s research in the world; the MJFF is behind the most significant breakthrough to date for a Parkinson’s biomarker. This biomarker accurately identifies those with Parkinson’s, and those at risk for Parkinson’s, through abnormal alpha-synuclein, the misfolded, inflammation-inducing protein in the spinal fluid; less than convenient, it requires an invasive lumbar puncture but hopefully a future version will involve a simple blood test or a nasal swab. See EpicentRx blog post: Breaking News: New Test to Diagnose Pre-symptomatic Parkinson’s Disease.
By any stretch, Parkinson’s disease is no joke but the immensely likeable Fox, “an incurable optimist”, as he has described himself, who refuses to be pitied by others or to indulge in self-pity, nevertheless makes one out of it anyway. To a concerned woman that sees him take a tumble on a New York city sidewalk, which is not an unusual occurrence, he ad libs, “You knocked me off my feet!” About his many broken bones from innumerable falls, since gait disturbance, balance impairments and falls are hallmarks of the disease, the diminutive actor jokes, “Gravity is real, even if you’re only my height”. Fox also self-identifies as a “cockroach” because, as he states, “you can’t kill a cockroach”.
Despite the ravages of time and disease, the actor’s charisma, ready wit, and boyish enthusiasm shine through to buoy and captivate us all.