The problem with biographical documentaries on people who’ve taken their own lives or died tragically is that nearly every interview or piece of footage essentially must build to that final, sad act. Whatever precedes the act is seen through the cataclysmic lens of death. It’s a nearly inescapable structural trap, especially if the profiled person is only recently deceased, the heartbreaking headlines and tributes still fresh in our brains. That’s what director Marina Zenovich is dealing with in her moving if single-tracked documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.
Williams died in 2014 and was mourned the world over, with stories surfacing to further illuminate his ceaseless humanity — like the fact that his performance rider asked bookers to hire homeless workers, a stipulation added after he appeared as a mentally ill homeless man in 1991’s The Fisher King. Zenovich doesn’t delve into details like that, though. The film, which also premieres July 16 on HBO, is driven straight down the line by interviews with Williams’ famous comedian friends, like Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, and his ex-wife Valerie Velardi and son Zak, the only two family members interviewed — on camera, at least.
Zenovich starts the story with Williams’ childhood, when his father traveled around the Midwest servicing local dealerships through the Ford Motor Company. We get a very typical story about a boy who craves the attention of his quiet, often absent father, and finds a way to do this through humor, particularly by emulating comedian Jonathan Winters. Zenovich then deftly draws the parallel between the two men’s work and how Winters influenced Williams by juxtaposing a clip of Winters’ comic improvisation (with a simple stick as a prop) with a blooper clip of Williams doing the same improvisations with a stick on Sesame Street.
Other pieces of Williams’ early life resonate with his later career, too, like his time attending a boys school not unlike the one that he would occupy playing a teacher in Dead Poets Society. And while it would be quite interesting for Zenovich to have given the story a tendrilled structure, branching out and following these exciting leads, she does seem to privilege traditional linear storytelling. That’s a shame, as one can see the possibilities of a film that mirrored the frenetic energy of Williams’ own mind.
The most resonant and heartfelt interview that butts into the infuriating order of this film, however, belongs to Crystal’s. The comedian was perhaps Williams’ closest friend. In one segment, Crystal says that he met his friend at a time when everyone wanted something material from Williams, but Crystal just wanted to be near him and talk. He shares the story of their bonding — Crystal picking up and comforting Williams’ son Zak — and this one anecdote carries so much more emotional weight than any of the other stories surrounding it. It’s specific, concrete and it conveys both how frustrating and difficult it was to try to be a devoted dad as a road comic and also how tender the connection was between the two men, both fathers trying to juggle it all.
Other interviews are less satisfying, even vague. One segment on Williams’ early stand-up days in the Bay Area contains an interview with Elayne Boosler, whose only purpose seems to be to introduce the fact that Williams slept around and that his then-wife Velardi didn’t mind. Its purpose feels obscure — a bit of juicy dish that doesn’t jibe with much else of the story. If Zenovich did want to introduce any “negative” aspects of Williams’ life or career, she has her work cut out for her, because it would be a tricky thing to cover; no one likes to speak ill of the dead, especially someone so tortured and beloved.
The film’s best gets, besides that Crystal interview, are the blooper reels and uncut stand-up performances, the ones that illustrate exactly how much of this man’s talent we’ve still never seen. In one interview, Williams’ longtime writer Bennett Tramer reveals that his legendary two-hour set at the Metropolitan Opera House was 25 percent improvisations Tramer had never seen before. How much of Williams’ life was one-offs lost to time?
Overall, the film plays more like a survey of Williams’ life, an ordered and abridged history that allows fans to say, “Oh, I remember that,” as a clip from one of his more notable films plays. Hell, I did so myself during a scene from World’s Greatest Dad, Bobcat Goldthwait’s blisteringly dark comedy about suicide. I’m frankly surprised that Zenovich didn’t linger on that section more, maybe asked some of his friends what Williams had said about this story that takes great pains to humorize his character’s darkest moments. The parallels are all there; they just need to be illuminated. But this film seems meant to be more a kind, sweet eulogy than an illumination.