A new documentary tackles the sickness that took Robin Williams’ life, while leaving much of that life unexplored.
The first movie star I remember loving was Robin Williams. This is mostly due to his voice work in the Disney film Aladdin, but I hardly remember a time before he was in my life as a child. Whether it was watching old reruns of Mork and Mindy on television or his parade of child-accessible entertainment throughout the 1990s, Williams was an omni-present force in my life. When I later became aware of his more dramatic work, he was someone I always kept an eye on, an actor who could swing between wild silliness to the depth of human sadness. He was a one-of-a-kind talent.
For all these reasons, when Williams died via suicide in August 2014, it was terribly sad. Only 64-years-old, Williams felt like a force that had so much more to give the world. In the immediate aftermath of his death, multiple stories sprung up speculating on what precisely led to him taking his own life. Theories swung from severe depression, to drug relapse, to professional woes after his network television show The Crazy Ones was canceled after a single season. In the vacuum of no longer having such a warm, omni-present force in our pop culture landscape, there was a pressing demand to know not how this has happened, but why.
In reality, Williams had been unknowingly suffering from diffuse Lewy body dementia, a condition related to but distinct from Parkinson’s disease. Williams’ widow Susan Williams, following the post-death diagnosis, began educating for increased awareness and research into the condition. The disease is universally fatal and incurable, but Susan argues that if her husband had gotten his diagnosis before death, it would have provided some clarity and guidance for the final years of his life.
Robin’s Wish, a new documentary from Tylor Norwood, covers all of this painful subject matter with a very careful touch. The film is fairly straightforward in its construction, cutting between interviews with friends and work colleagues of Williams recounting his life and character, as well as covering the disease that would eventually take his life. The narrative is not exactly chronological, cutting between his early years as a theatre major, the final weeks of his life, co-workers detailing stories, and back again. It can whip around a bit and feel slightly formless, but at the center is also Williams.
All this content around Williams is an analysis of Lewy body dementia and how precisely someone like Williams could have been suffering from it for a considerable amount of time. These descriptions sometimes can come in rather crushing waves, and are hard to fully understand. What you mainly need to know is that those suffering from it lose a sense of self, and things that were once easy steadily become less so.
The most heartbreaking portions of the documentary all center around Susan Williams recalling the final months of Robin’s life, from the time he returned from filming the third Night at the Museum film to talking in detail about his final day. Her depiction of their marriage, which tragically only lasted around three years, is warm and loving. Nearly every other interviewer confirms how much Robin loved his wife, and how happy they had seemed together in the relative afterglow of their newly wedded bliss. The fact that their life together was cut short seems especially painful.
The other heartbreaking part of the film is the clips of Robin himself. Through interviews, family footage and clips from his various projects, his warmth and talent constantly shines through. The titular wish, a note that Williams wrote in one of his 12-Step books, was simply “I want to help people be less afraid.” He dedicated his life to bring light and joy to other people, and thus to hear how his final months were cast in the shadow of paranoia and confusion are especially hard. His eyes carried such warmth and love, and the fact that he lost himself when his brain sabotaged itself feels almost too sad to bear.
Unfortunately, many of the other interviews, while interesting glimpses into the man himself, aren’t especially compelling. They recall how kind he was, his trait of calling everyone “boss” and how in his chosen hometown of Marin he was a very present and visible local. His dedication to remaining grounded is a common theme, though several interviews discuss some of Robin’s darker moments. Topics such as struggles with addiction and pre-dementia depression are mentioned, but brushed over. The film functions as a eulogy, not an especially thorough examination of an extraordinary life.
Ultimately the documentary, which clocks in at just 77 minutes, doesn’t give an especially exhaustive view of either the man or the disease; it largely assumes you know who Robin is, which is a fair enough presupposition, and relies upon friendly interviews to reveal who the man was behind the star. From all of this, you get the impression there was not much space between who he allowed himself to be in public life and who he was when the cameras were off. But the film also claims to be the “final word” on the life of Williams, and it falls well short of that; no interview is done with his children, and the focus on his death, while interesting, doesn’t leave space for his sadness. His widow, and the filmmakers, are dedicated to spreading awareness of the disease that ultimately led him to take his own life. But the full scale of the tragedy of that feels like an untapped well. Robin Williams is simply too large of a figure to be contained to one simplistic documentary, and much like Williams’ own passing, this film sadly leaves you longing for more.
Robin’s Wish is now available through digital and on demand services.