Documentary examines life and career of Robin Williams

Photo courtesy of HBO

Robin Williams made his career out of stylistically upbeat, high-energy comedy. He often discussed dark topics in his routines, but he always did so with a trademark cynical detachment.

Those who looked at Williams’s comedy closely could identify a man with troubles lurking beneath the surface, but most of the world lapped up his material without a second thought.

When Williams committed suicide in 2014 at age 63, then, it was not really fair to call it a surprise. A shock without a doubt, but not a surprise.

It should not have been difficult to see that Williams had been struggling with depression and addiction, yet many were content to believe that Williams was having as much fun as his audiences.

HBO’s new documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” explores the lengths to which Williams went to make his fans laugh, and the sacrifices he made to bring joy to others.

The film uses a combination of videos of Williams on and off the stage and interviews with those close to the comic to paint a vivid image of Williams’s public and private lives and personalities.

The film first examines the origins of Williams’s unique comic style, with relatives and childhood friends discussing how Williams found an escape from the loneliness of being the only child of professional parents in the kind of character comedy for which he would later become famous.

This episode is an excellent demonstration of one of the key points the film tries to make. Even when Williams was working only for himself, he used comedy as an escape from his problems.

Marina Zenovich does a magnificent job of putting together different clips and interviews in a way that conveys the narrative she is looking to develop without having to rely on a narrator to guide the viewer along.

In fact, the closest thing the film has to a narrator is the voice of Robin Williams himself, old recordings of which Zenovich uses to make her points. This use of Williams’s own voice makes the film feel significantly more honest and lends the production a feeling of authenticity.

Zenovich makes brilliant use of everything at her disposal to advance her narrative, and she manages to give structure to a film which in the hands of another director might have ended up chaotic and disoreinting.

After exploring Williams’s origins and rise to fame, the film moves from a period of the comic’s life marked by optimism to one defined by struggle.

Williams becomes addicted to cocaine and it takes the overdose death of his contemporary John Belushi to pull him out of a spiral of vice. Williams also begins to struggle in his personal relationships despite his newfound success in his career.

The film tactfully implies that this darker turn in Williams’s life was reflected in his approach to his comedy. While the film makes it clear that Williams continued to use comedy as an escape from reality, Zenovich shows that the work began to take a more significant personal toll on Williams.

The film argues that Williams’s high-energy style and excessive stage confidence were both tools he used to escape the fallability and weakness he perceived in his real life. During this period of his life, however, his work and life on the road drained him and left him exhausted, rather than relieving him of his issues.

The film explicitly compares Williams’s performances in this period to those of a gladiator, and in a clever choice by Zenovich, clips of Williams performing exhausting sets are paired with Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work.” Zenovich implies that while Williams continued to enjoy performing, he began to stumble under the burden of entertaining audiences.

This is essentially the central goal of the documentary: to celebrate Williams for the sacrifices he made for his fans.

Williams was never fully understood by the broad public; he was always just a “fun” comedian to most of his fans, and few comprehended the complexity of his personality. Still, he sufferred quietly, moving from packed show to packed show, performing brilliantly for the benefit of the rest of the world.

Zenovich paints this narrative brilliantly and she deserves the highest praise for her work on this film. Still, the best part of the movie is not what it helps viewers understand, but rather what it makes them feel.

The film is deeply nostalgic, from the clips of Williams’s performances to the intimate looks at his private life given by home videos and photographs, and the documentary comes along at a time when the viewer may just be forgetting that he misses Robin Williams. This movie reminds the viewer that he owes it to Williams to remember.