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Parkinson's 'made me present in every moment of my life,' says Michael J. Fox

I've always been moving ... I've always counted on movement, to not only propel me from place to place, but to express myself," says Michael J. Fox in<em> Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.</em>
Apple TV+
I've always been moving ... I've always counted on movement, to not only propel me from place to place, but to express myself," says Michael J. Fox in Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.

What really got to me was the walk.

Early in the film Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, we see the Emmy, Golden Globe and Grammy award-winning performer trying to walk down a city street. Even as his equilibrium is severely distorted by the effects of Parkinson's disease, Fox energetically launches himself into the task — moving forward with a lurching gait that seems as if he might spin off into an unpredictable direction at any moment.

Behind him, an aide who is also a movement coach gently reminds him to slow down and reset himself before every step. An admirer — a woman in a face mask — walks by and says hi; as Fox turns to acknowledge her, he gets caught in his own legs and falls down.

As the aide helps him get up and the admirer asks if he's all right, Fox drops the punchline: "You knocked me off my feet."

That's the kind of intimate drama which knits together the best moments in Still, a portrait of a talented and widely-admired performer who keeps fighting, even as Parkinson's slowly takes away many of the things he values most.

At times it is a showy film, knitting together re-enacted footage and clips from Fox's wide body of TV and movie work to recreate key moments in the actor's life. It begins with the instant in 1990 when Fox realized he had a tremor in his pinkie finger he couldn't control.

Michael J. Fox with wife Tracy Pollan.
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Michael J. Fox with wife Tracy Pollan.

In that scene, director Davis Guggenheim (an Oscar winner for An Inconvenient Truth) melds footage of a body double in a hotel bed who's grabbing his own hand with clips from fight scenes in other Fox films to build a montage showing the feelings flooding the actor as he watched this digit which seemingly had a mind of its own.

Despite the fact that he was one of Hollywood's hottest actors at the time, "I was in an acid bath of fear and professional insecurity," Fox says in voice over. "The trembling was a message from the future."

Telling a painful truth without pity

Still accomplishes something amazing – it draws viewers into the painful reality of Fox's life with Parkinson's without turning him into an object of pity or martyrdom.

We get the requisite Hollywood star biography: born and raised in Canada, Fox left high school and moved to Los Angles as a teen to pursue acting. Because he looked young for his age, he could credibly play 12-year-olds and landed in a range of mediocre TV shows for low pay. Just as he was about to throw in the towel and head back north, he scored the role that would launch his career – young conservative Alex P. Keaton in the popular NBC sitcom Family Ties.

Michael J. Fox at the London premiere of <em>Back to the Future </em>in December 1985.
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Michael J. Fox at the London premiere of Back to the Future in December 1985.

Here, Guggenheim works his magic again, using behind-the-scenes clips from Family Ties and Back to the Future for an arresting sequence dramatizing how Fox filmed both projects at once in 1985 – putting himself on a treadmill of constant work. It wasn't until his agent congratulated him on the success of Back to the Future that he realized the film was any good.

But that showbusiness stuff is just the backdrop setting up the film's most affecting moments. When Fox faces the camera and speaks directly about his life — connecting with viewers through the camera as if he's speaking directly and solely to each one of us — the film really takes flight.

We see him work with a speech therapist to narrate audio from his books – he's written four, including 2002's Lucky Man: A Memoir. We watch him describe how a fall led him to break several bones in his face. We observe his struggle to put toothpaste on a toothbrush and learn he tried to hide his advancing Parkinson's symptoms while working on films and appearing on TV talk shows in the 1990s — as Guggenheim serves up footage of Fox favoring his left hand in different scenes.

And Fox is honest about how he coped by plunging into work and struggling to stay sober, as wife Tracy Pollan tried to keep him honest about his issues. "My first two years of sobriety [were] like a knife fight in a closet," he says in the film. "I wasn't facing things."

Revealing insecurities without submitting to them

What emerges is a portrait of a man strong enough to reveal his insecurities, and tough enough to fight through them. He declares his intention to avoid pity and live as independently as he can, while remaining realistic about how much more difficult things are becoming with each advancing year.

But even after acknowledging all that Parkinson's has taken from him, Fox admits it has given him something, too.

Michael J. Fox (far right) with wife Tracy Pollan, son Sam and daughter Esme.
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Michael J. Fox (far right) with wife Tracy Pollan, son Sam and daughter Esme.

"The thing about motion with me is I've always been moving...I've always counted on movement to not only propel me from place to place, but to express myself," he says, deep into the film.

"The thing that I learned was that I couldn't be still in my life. I couldn't be present in my life. Until I found this thing that made me present in every moment of my life. It's shaken me awake."

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is available on Apple TV+ and select theaters nationwide.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.