Michael J. Fox told his own story in “Steel,” which director Davis Guggenheim called “a Michael J. Fox Movie,” remixes the clip with cleverly recreated scenes from the Emmy-winning actor’s personal life throughout his career. It’s a funny way to frame it, seeing as how the emotional crowd-pleasing star Fox has come to expect from him and what many fans of “Family Ties,” “Back to the Future” and “Spin City” have come to expect from him. Fox is a charismatic guy, and though his personal story has been overshadowed by Parkinson’s disease, Guggenheim’s upbeat and ultra-smooth documentary is a reminder of what a poignant, relatable figure he was — and is — on screen.
Fox may have grown up in Canada, but many Americans feel they grew up next to him. Almost a decade older than her, Foxx had a knack for embodying misguided teenage awkwardness, and though she remembers how the network almost axed her breakthrough role on the NBC sitcom “Family Ties,” the rest of us could imagine the show. Not — or our childhood — without him. That’s why it was a joint setback that Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 29, a brain disease that causes some muscles to twitch uncontrollably while others don’t respond at all.
Guggenheim sees Fox as a trouper, how the actor struggled to hide his symptoms for years, burying himself in his work to avoid confronting his handicap. Today, the actor has a good game about the terrible things Parkinson’s does to his body, cracking jokes about tremors, and the most Michael J. of the entire movie. In the Fox scene, to a passing fan recovering from a trip on a New York sidewalk: “Nice to meet you! You knocked me off my feet!”
Parkinson’s is inevitably the elephant in the room here, and although it gets a fair amount of attention, the director devotes almost the first hour of Fox’s life to before the world learns of his diagnosis. Along with archive producer Jackie Cleary, Guggenheim does an amazing job of finding clips from Fox’s career that resonate with the story, especially the tense moments when he was shooting “Back to the Future” and “Family Ties” at the same time (his character in a later scene , featuring Alex P. Keaton, “You Think You Can Handle Both Jobs?”).
Looking back, Fox makes it look easy, secretly coming off cool and calm under pressure. “Secret of My Success” seems like a rich source for clips, providing amusing illustrations for his early ’80s professional concerns. Guggenheim fills in the blanks with original footage, hiring actors of different ages to play Fox at different times, their faces always 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 jam packets from Smucker’s.
“I was a Hollywood boy prince,” recalls Fox, whose marriage to Tracy Pollan makes up a good portion of the film. But fame is fickle, and Fox feared what it would mean to be diagnosed with a terminal condition at such a young age. Of course, Fox has access to physical trainers and treatment that most Parkinson’s patients don’t; He also bears the scrutiny of an able society. The unfair challenge for people with disabilities is the pressure it puts on them to make others feel comfortable with their condition. Fox never intended to be the poster boy for Parkinson’s, but if he could sell Pepsi to an entire generation, it was within his power to raise awareness of the disease he was dealing with.
And so she’s taken on roles that encompass her symptoms — seizures, facial pressure, difficulty walking — while pushing back against kid-glove treatment for people with disabilities. He plays a jerk in “The Good Wife” (you wouldn’t know it from the courtroom clip Guggenheim samples) and Larry sprays David with soda to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (a clever way to acknowledge his jerk). All told, Fox significantly increased visibility for the condition by going further for this documentary, allowing the Guggenheim’s camera to enter his home.
Editor Michael Hart (“Three Identical Strangers”) does a great job of building the overall story, including some great montages. One track through Fox’s many acting gigs in the ’90s — the decade when he knew but others didn’t about his Parkinson’s — reveals moments in which he holds something in his left hand to disguise his symptoms. Guggenheim is the ideal interviewer for this task, asking earnest yet sensitive questions that elicit candid answers. He and Harte did some other extraordinary work: They caught Fox, including footage most editors would cut where the actor languished between sound bites.
With “Still,” Fox lets listeners see him as he is now. He’s younger than many realize, and that’s another source of self-deprecating humor. But letting his disability show is a kind of strength. A montage of the actor running through his many roles reminds us how active he was in his heyday. Still, testifying before the Senate, participating in this project, inspired by example.