This is a re-post of our Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind review from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The movie premieres on HBO on July 16th at 8pm ET/PT.
A little over three years ago, Robin Williams died, and watching Marina Zenovich’s moving documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, I realized that I’ll never be completely at peace with that, which is a weird thing for a performer I never even met let alone knew personally. And yet what the documentary does so well is show why Williams was special, and a unique comic personality. Although the documentary doesn’t shy away from the more tumultuous aspects of Williams life, Zenovich takes a fairly straightforward approach, not really challenging the documentary form and letting Williams carry the show. Watching a compendium of his standup, TV work, movies, and people speaking about him in glowing terms, you kind of wish it would never end.
Come Inside My Mind is pretty much a cradle-to-the-grave telling of Williams’ life and career with Zenovich compiling a remarkable amount of material including old photos, recordings from his days doing theater, lots of stand-up, and his TV and film work. Mixed in are old interviews with Williams and a solid amount of interviews with friends, colleagues, his first wife, and his son Zak (notably absent are Williams’ second and third wives or his other children, but it’s not like anyone should be required to participate in the documentary about a loved one). But the star of the show is Williams and Zenovich is able to compile a fascinating picture of an artist who needed to perform.
I’m sure there are people who are better versed in Williams’ life than I am, a person who became a fan during Williams’ streak of family films in the early 90s, but there are still plenty of interesting tidbits for people who may not be completely versed in his life story. For example, I didn’t know that Williams was one of the last people to see John Belushi alive, and that Belushi’s death was a compelling factor in Williams’ desire to get clean after living a drug-fueled lifestyle in the late 70s and early 80s. I also didn’t know that Williams co-starred with Steve Martin in a stage production of Waiting for Godot. What Zenovich is able to show consistently through Come Inside My Mind is that Williams, despite a unique and iconic persona, had a remarkable amount of diversity in his life and career.
Where the documentary really shines is in trying to drill down and figure out the creative impulse in Williams. There are times where it feels like Zenovich is fishing, glancing at aspects like Williams’ upbringing (he was the only child of two parents who had both remarried and had kids from previous marriages), but eventually it’s able to see that Williams, like many artists, was simply compelled to perform. At various points, several people note how Williams would leave everything on stage and be fairly quiet in private, but as he became more popular, it was difficult to “turn off.” That being said, the movie doesn’t go so far as to reduce Williams as a “sad clown” figure, tortured inside but laughing on the outside.
Williams’ gift, as the film shows, was that he cared deeply about performing. While his stand-up and gregarious persona is what most people know about him, he studied. One subject notes that while Williams made it look like everything was spontaneous and improvised, he still prepared, and while he could go off the cuff (25% of his material at his The Met special had never been performed before), he still believed in preparation and professionalism. Director Mark Romanek notes that Williams would be making people crack up between takes on One Hour Photo, but he would then use that energy for his creepy performance when the cameras came on.
But what makes the absence of Williams hurt so much, and what the documentary doesn’t miss, is his constant kindness. There are plenty of funny people in the world, and to its credit, Come Inside My Mind doesn’t make Williams about to be a saint. And yet it notes that he threw himself into the charity Comic Relief and a USO Tour with the same gusto as everything else. Williams didn’t have to do that stuff. His career would have been fine without it. And yet he wanted to give back, and it all seems to tie back into his need to just make people laugh. You can call that a compulsion or a neurosis, but in Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, we see that it was Williams’ gift to the world, and it’s one we’ll always miss.