Perhaps the bleakest moment in Netflix’s Robbie Williams – a new four-part documentary series with no shortage of bleak moments – is also its most telling. The year is 1999 and the titular superstar is preparing to perform to a stadium-sized audience at Slane Castle in Ireland.
“How excited are you?” asks an interviewer. “I’ve been in a black depression for about the last five weeks,” Robbie replies flatly, “and came out of it last week, so I’m not excited about very much at the minute… I’m scared of everything.” This is not the answer the interviewer was looking for, so they try again. Is Robbie looking forward to the show? “Definitely!” the pop star replies with a rictus grin, sticking to the brief this time. “There’s gonna be 80,000 people there… It’s gonna be a wonderful experience.”
Robbie Williams is a tale of the last era of super-charged celebrity. It’s an unflinching depiction of tabloid fuckery, mass ignorance of mental health issues and a pre-social media age in which a handful of celebrities found themselves at the molten centre of the pop culture universe. Few, of course, remained unscathed. The set-up is innovative: director Joe Pearlman eschews the usual talking heads to focus on Robbie himself, who is shown previously unseen archive footage from throughout his career and responds to it in real-time. For some reason, he usually does so in his pants.
Robbie on stage in the new doc. CREDIT: Netflix
Anyway, here he is at 16, a working-class boy from Stoke-On-Trent thrown headfirst into fame as one-fifth of Take That. “It was a complete dunking into the adult world that I was not ready for,” middle-aged Robbie tells Pearlman of the ensuing acrimony that results in his infamous split from the band. Another harrowing scene sees him onstage, now a solo star, berating former bandmate Gary Barlow: “He’s not selling any more records now, girls! Let’s face it: he’s dead!”
Today, with his young daughter by his side, Robbie looks bereft. “I’m sorry that I treated Gary like that,” he says quietly. This is the most effective use of a narrative mechanism that can sometimes become claustrophobic, making the documentary narrow in scope. Robbie has, however, described the series as his right of reply to endless abuse from the press. In this respect, his lowest ebb coincides with his commercial peak.
Locked into two nights at Roundhay Park in Leeds as part of 2006’s unsustainably massive Close Encounters Tour, he’s shaken by a brutal review of the widely ridiculed ‘Rudebox’, which he earnestly believed would be “bigger than ‘Angels’”. The hurt spirals into a full-scale panic attack. He just about pulls off the show, but the abiding image is of him in a trap door waiting to be elevated onstage – on top of the world and yet spiritually below ground.
In fact, that sums up Robbie Williams as a documentary. It’s a persuasive account of the gulf that can occur between wealth and happiness, a simple sentiment that can be difficult to really feel. Like Robbie himself, the show’s imperfect and a little insular, but its emotional pull is undeniable.
Director: Joe Pearlman
Release date: November 8 (Netflix)
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