I’ve been speaking to Robbie Williams and he’s got 30,000 hours of unseen archive.” This tip-off, imparted to director Joe Pearlman by a former colleague during a catch-up meeting, immediately made the filmmaker “wake up”. Three decades’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage capturing life as one of the most famous people in Britain. It’d be an intriguing prospect for any director, not least one like Pearlman, who has spent the past few years chronicling the idiosyncrasies and inner lives of musicians, from the squabbling Goss twins in 2018’s Bros: After the Screaming Stops to Lewis Capaldi in How I’m Feeling Now, released earlier this year. “I traipsed out to go and see some of the archive and was immediately floored by the depth and breadth,” the director recalls. “It was obviously gigs and those kinds of things, but equally, you had him on holiday, behind the scenes, drug-taking and some of the abuse [he faced].”
That stack of footage, he says, “felt like an amazing opportunity”, so he “jumped at the chance to meet Rob” after he’d finished editing his Capaldi project. We’re speaking over Zoom shortly before the end result of their collaboration, a four-part series looking back across Williams’s life in often painful detail, arrives on Netflix. Pearlman is genial, easy company – it’s not hard to see how his subjects might open up or drop their guard in his presence. “I never go into the shows trying to make a film at you. I’m always trying to make it with you,” he says. “These people get to know a huge amount about me as well, whether they want to or not. I’m a talker, I’m a sharer, because this isn’t just a job … This is a huge amount of responsibility that’s placed on your lap.”
For his first audience with Williams at a London hotel, says Pearlman, the singer “turned up in a Gucci suit, no top underneath”. “I knew I was in the presence of a pop star.” Williams, he says, was very clear about wanting “to make something different” from the traditional music doc formula. So they set up an initial interview, “just to get the process going and to see what he wanted to talk about – and to understand his memory, I guess, of his life. Because as he says himself, he’s had a very excess-filled life, an enormous life.” Yet when Pearlman looked again at that first chat, “[it] felt like we’d heard a lot of it before … And I understood that, because this man has done thousands and thousands of interviews in his life. I’m sure you slip into interview mode, and you just kind of get it out and get through it.”
Pearlman still “felt like we could get so much deeper with him”, rather than rehashing old soundbites. So his team went back to that massive video cache, accumulated through 30 years’ worth of behind-the-scenes filming, video diaries and low-key, personal footage. Much of it feels like it would have been too honest or too visceral to use in the average promo documentary – perhaps why Williams had avoided revisiting it (presumably he was also pretty busy with the small matter of being a major pop star too). The researchers and editors whittled it down to about 10 hours, which Williams could then watch on his laptop and respond to on camera. The result is a one-man Gogglebox, mixing the archive material with shots of the now 49-year-old Williams reacting to scenes from his past. “I’m trying to sort out the wreckage of the past and I’m picking a rather particular way to exorcise these demons right now,” the singer tells us at the start.
Throughout his career, Williams has been consistently, bracingly frank about his mental health: the addictions, the depression, the relapses… and the debilitating impact of having all of this picked over in the tabloids. But the series seems to tear off another layer of skin (to borrow an image from his 2000 “Rock DJ” music video). “I don’t think he ever thought he would be honest on camera,” Pearlman says. “I think he thought he would always be putting on this persona.” In his natural habitat, there is less bravado, more vulnerability.
The director and his team took over “a chunk” of Williams’s house in Los Angeles for about a month, filming for between seven and nine hours each day. We see him pottering around the kitchen in a Gucci cardigan, spending time with his wife, actor and presenter Ayda Field, and their four kids (the oldest, Teddy, crops up to pose the big questions: “Who did you hate the most?” she asks guilelessly as Williams surveys old Take That footage). Most of the shoot, though, was captured in the singer’s bedroom.
“After I met Rob, we used to do Zooms or he used to FaceTime me, and he was always in bed,” Pearlman explains. “I asked him one day, ‘What is this [about]?’ and he said, ‘This is my comfortable place. If I’m not on stage, I’m in bed. This is where I want to be… This is my safe space.’ So rather than come up with some sort of contrived interview idea, it was more: let’s see Rob as stripped down as he could possibly be, because he wants to do that. So the bed and pants were rolled out.” Ah yes. Present-day Williams spends the majority of his time on screen wearing a black vest and pants. “They were washed!” Pearlman laughs. “But he walked in on the first day and started getting undressed and took his trousers off. I was like ‘whatever you’re comfortable with, man.’ He’s famous for being in his pants. So it feels like it’s a nice nod to the man he is.”
Even if you feel like you’re familiar with the broad strokes of the Robbie Williams story, the documentary allows you to see it anew. It begins in 1990, when a 16-year-old Robbie, barely out of school, joins Take That. “I didn’t do much dancing [before the band], just local discos and everything,” a baby-faced Williams tells Michaela Strachan in one old TV clip, filmed for the kids’ show Cool Cube in the car park outside Manchester’s Granada Studios (Strachan wears a witch’s hat and fake nose for the occasion). “But I did enough to keep up with these lot,” he quips, gesturing at his bandmates, who are older and a little more self-serious. One scene, in which Gary Barlow shows off his book of lyrics, every successful track marked with a gold star, is 24-carat Partridge.
He was going to have to rewatch active addiction: I think we knew that was going to be incredibly challenging
The group are soon performing at venues far more illustrious than the Granada car park, but Williams, we see, grows frustrated, bristling at the lack of creative control and at Barlow’s status as de facto leader. He starts drinking heavily – “a bottle of vodka a night before going into rehearsals”, he says in the show’s present-day scenes – and using cocaine. After he leaves Take That, the series segues from enjoyable Nineties nostalgia to “trauma watch”, as Williams put it himself in a recent interview. Looking on while Williams relives the disintegration of his mental health is certainly uncomfortable viewing (it’s hard not to think about how we, the public, consuming the stories of his many ups and downs, are complicit).
“He was going to have to rewatch active addiction: I think we knew that was going to be incredibly challenging and also potentially triggering,” Pearlman says. “So we had to be very careful around those moments.” About a week into filming, Field told him that after they wrapped each day, her husband ‘“just comes back to our room, and he gets into bed and he just stares up at the ceiling’.” “I can imagine that,” Pearlman says. “This thing would take its toll on a person. And there were times when we couldn’t continue, times when we had to call it [off] and that was fine.”
While there are some gossipy revelations – insights from his brief relationship with Geri Halliwell in the early 2000s, gleaned from camcorder footage from a Mediterranean trip – and plenty of Robbie one-liners – “I want to write ‘Karma Police’ and I’m writing ‘Karma Chameleon’,” he sighs over the lyrics to “Rock DJ” – the series’ most powerful points are about Williams’s mental health. “There are a few moments in this show that I can’t believe someone would survive it and be able to continue and carry on to talk about it, never mind reliving it,” Pearlman says.
One scene will be a near-unbearable watch for anyone who’s ever been hollowed out by depression. Off camera, a chirpy interviewer asks Williams to express his excitement about the major gig he’s about to play. “I’m not really that bothered… about anything,” he says, eyes blank. Minutes later, he becomes “Robbie”, and gives the interviewer the bouncy, mad-for-it answer she needs for her video package. “There are all these moments within the show, just before the camera starts rolling or just before the question comes in, where Rob is looking down, then he sits up and the smile comes, and he does the performance,” Pearlman says. “He’s able to dig deep and become the person you’re expecting to see in the moment. And it’s heartbreaking.”
Equally heartbreaking is the way that Williams’s early frankness about his issues seems to be met with apathy at best, derision at worst: he was, as Pearlman puts it, “ignored most of the time, or mocked for it … It shocks me for people to be so inhumane, if I’m honest.” At the time, the rationale from the papers and the public who read them, he says, seemed to be: “Why are you complaining? You’ve got cash, you’ve got houses all over the world, you’ve got private jets, why are you complaining?”
I find it fascinating that something you’re destined to do can also be so crippling
Williams, the director adds, “is a perfect example of what fame can do to a person … You get all the plaudits, you get the money and the success and all those things. But at the same time, you’re hounded, you’re abused, you’re someone else’s property. It’s sort of otherworldly – Rob talks about it as ‘demonic’. I don’t understand why we want to pull these people down, because they define so many important parts of our lives: like ‘Angels’, tell me a wedding that hasn’t been played at? These are all things that matter to us. So why, culturally, do we want to kill them and bring them down? That’s really odd to me.”
Pearlman, 34, started his career making sports documentaries at Fulwell 73, the production company that counts James Corden as a co-partner, before moving into the weird world of the music industry with the Bros documentary, which became a word-of-mouth success when it landed on BBC iPlayer over Christmas in 2018. He also helmed Return to Hogwarts, the reunion programme which marked 20 years of the Harry Potter film franchise last year. This front-row seat to the ups and downs of fame has shown him that celebrity is very much “a poisoned chalice” (but an irresistible subject matter). “You’re watching people who are desperate to do this, who are fulfilling their dreams, but their dreams are really hurting them,” he says. “That’s why I want to make shows like this – because I find it fascinating that something you’re destined to do can also be so crippling.”
Williams, he says, is nervous about the documentary’s release, because “his experience of putting himself out there can be quite painful and bring back some awful memories”. But those nerves are tempered with excitement. “He actually messaged me the other day … And he just said, ‘this is the first time I’m going to be seen as a human being’. That’s an amazing thing – to be able to humanise someone who I guess the world has dehumanised for so long … This is a different Robbie, and I think this is the Robbie that the world should know.”
‘Robbie Williams’ is on Netflix from 8 November
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