WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A pair of documentaries looking at the life, mind, work, talent, mental health struggles, debilitating illness and tragic death of the great comedy icon, Robin Williams.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
In commemoration of what would have been Robin Williams' 70th birthday last week, Showmax has not one but two documentaries about the great man on offer right now. HBO's Robin Williams: Come Into My Mind is a two-hour-long but pacey look at Robin Williams' entire life with a special emphasis on his considerable talent as a stand up comic, an actor and an improviser of few equal. Half an hour shorter, Robin's Wish, on the other hand, certainly delves into Williams' career, but it is primarily about the last couple of years of his life and the horrifying, misdiagnosed illness that drove him to commit suicide at the age of sixty-three.
It says a lot about both documentaries, but perhaps even more about their subject, that they are both must-sees for even the most casual Robin Williams fan. And, while both stand perfectly well alone, they also complement each other beautifully.
While one could quibble about the lack of focus of Come Into My Mind and there are certainly elements of Williams' remarkable and varied career that I would certainly have liked to see explored in more depth – his more dramatic acting work gets short shrift outside of a couple of clips – the film manages to cram a ton into just a couple of hours.
Interspersed with new interviews with his first wife, one of his kids and many of his famous and non-famous co-workers, admirers, colleagues and friends (frequent partner in crime, Billy Crystal is an especially welcome presence), Come Into My Mind tells Robin Williams' story mostly through archival clips of the man himself. Including extracts from some of his many films and TV shows, numerous interviews, behind-the-scenes clips, and, most crucially, some of his greatest comedy routines, the documentary paints a vivid portrait of a truly extraordinary life – a real deep-dive, indeed, into the mind of Robin Williams.
The film can get heavy at times with Robins' struggles with depression and alcoholism, the close friends he lost along the way, and, most crushingly, the tragic last couple of years of his life, but this is first and foremost a celebration of a massive comedic talent. It's a joyous, moving, laugh-out-loud affair – perhaps never more so than in a sequence at the Critics Choice Awards one year when Williams lost to both Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis in a three-horse race, but Nicholson, who is "too baked to do this" calls on Williams to accept the award on their behalf. What follows is three minutes of improvised comedic genius that has the entire audience of A-list celebs unable to breathe from laughing so hard.
There's nothing quite like this in Robin's Wish. Though there are clips and callbacks to Robin Williams' comedy, and it is, in its own way, just as much a tribute to Williams' life as the HBO doc, Robin's Wish is an altogether more intimate and focused experience. Gone are the celebrity interviews, lengthy comedy routines, and strictly chronological retelling of Williams' life; in are interviews with his neighbours, childhood friends, medical specialists, the directors of two of his last film and TV projects, and his third wife, Susan, whom he had married just a few years before his death, all assembled to paint a sobering picture of what really happened to Robin Williams in his last days.
It paints a particularly unflattering picture of a mass media that spent weeks speculating about what drove this consummate funny man to kill himself but gave almost no attention to the actual cause of death that was released only after an extensive coroners report. Drugs and mental illness make for sensational headlines; Lewy Body Dementia apparently doesn't. Indeed, though I had heard that he was struggling with a terminal illness before his suicide until watching Robin's Wish (which I watched first of the two documentaries, as it happens), I had no idea just how much this terminal illness was a direct causal factor in his suicide - let alone the suffering it was causing him during his last few months of life or the horrible truth that with a misdiagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, Williams had no idea why his own mind was betraying him.
And this, really, is the focus of Robin's Wish. We do get some picture of just how great a mind Robin Williams had for most of his life, as well as some – but only some – personal details thrown in, but this is all done to explore the effects of Lewy Body Dementia on an unusually smart, talented, sensitive and introspective human being.
We learn – through a particularly effective device of having a specialist on the subject teaching it to us, the audience, in an otherwise empty lecture hall – that along with the physical symptoms associated with Parkinson's, Lew Body Dementia also causes increased levels of anxiety and depression, confusion and hallucinations. It is a disease that is always fatal and very, very often ends in suicide.
The film doesn't mention that it accounts for 5% of all dementia cases, as opposed to Alzheimer's that accounts for somewhere between 60 and 80% (with the quality of life being far worse in those with Lewy Bodies than Alzheimer's), but it does mention that it is constantly misdiagnosed, not least because, incredibly, the less obvious symptoms are better hidden in well-above-average intelligences like that of Robin Williams. To hammer that home, it also makes clear that were it not for the resilience of Williams' particular brain; he would have been dead from the disease well before he committed suicide.
While those around him knew that something was off with him in those last few months – both TV super-producer, David E Kelly, who worked with him on the sitcom, The Crazy Ones (I would have loved to hear from his co-star and on-screen daughter, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who apparently formed quite a bond with Williams) and Shawn Levy, who directed him in the Night at the Museum movies, note how he grew increasingly uncertain of his own abilities throughout both projects – no one knew exactly what was wrong. And though no one believed he had gone back to his drinking and drugging ways, it was easy to assume that he was simply internalising the effects of his "Parkinsons" particularly badly.
And yet, for all this bleakness, for however much this is a documentary as much about a lesser-known but deadly disease as it is about the life and times of Robin Williams, it is also very much a love story about Robin and Susan (nee Schneider) Williams and the love they shared over the short time they were together, a love that remained strong even as both of them knew something was seriously wrong with Robin, albeit without knowing just how wrong. Along with flashbacks to a career dedicated to making strangers happy, this gives the film a lighter, more hopeful feel than it otherwise could have had. It's not as enjoyable as Come Into My Mind – and it's not quite as well-assembled, especially with the cliché documentary score occasionally grating – but it is no less rewarding a watch.
And, yes, that's four stars for both films. Do yourself a favour by checking out both.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: