Culture / Entertainment

Revelations and Emotional Surprises From the Michael J. Fox, Brooke Shields and Little Richard Documentaries — Inside Sundance

These Emotional Films Pack a Punch — Where You Can Watch Them

BY // 01.26.23

PARK CITY, Utah — Sundance typically opens its 10 day Festival with  powerhouse films (think Whiplash in 2014, and the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana in 2020). These opening day and first weekend movies draw the glitterati of Hollywood and reinforce the notion of Sundance being the buzziest place on earth for a few snowy weeks.

This year Sundance is awash with documentaries on cultural and entertainment icons. Three particularly stand out.

Little Richard

Opening night at the 2,200 seat Eccles Theatre (a high school auditorium that is used as Sundance’s main venue) featured Little Richard: I am Everything, a long overdue and celebratory look at the complex and complicated life of music pioneer Little Richard who preceded Elvis and penned iconic rock ‘n’ roll hits “Tutti Frutti”  and “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

Born Richard Penniman in Macon Georgia, Little Richard was one of 12 children raised in the rural South by a preacher father with strong beliefs and strict religious teachings. Documentary director Lisa Cortes has amassed a treasure trove of his early performances along with laudatory clips from icons of their own.

“Little Richard was everything,” Mick Jagger says. “We idolized little Richard,” the late John Lennon adds in another clip in the movie.

Cortes has a difficult job in telling Little Richard’s story, not least because of Little Richard himself. After he burst on the music scene with his flamboyant clothes, makeup and songs, he left the business to enroll in theology school. When Little Richard returned to rock ‘n’ roll because rural preaching couldn’t support his lifestyle, he had to reinvent himself with mixed results.

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Little Richard Sundance Film Festival
“Little Richard: I Am Everything” debuted opening night at The Sundance Film Festival.

Throughout his career Little Richard awkwardly bounced from gospel music to rock ‘n’ roll and from exuberant over the top gay musician who delighted in his makeup and zany costumes to a man who in his last interview declared: “God made men, he made women and you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live. God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

There are several themes to this documentary. Little Richard’s sexuality, with the throughline of his shame about being homosexual atoned for with religious fervor, the music industry’s treatment of him financially and its failure to recognize his cultural and musical contribution because the industry believed white musicians (Elvis Presley, Pat Boone) doing his songs were more acceptable and would sell better. The film also celebrates Little Richard’s influence on music legends, including Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Tom Jones and David Bowie.

The viewer will find unanswered questions surrounding Little Richard’s marriage, his adopted son and the years leading up to his death in 2020. Notwithstanding these loose ends, the joyful and buoyant music in this affectionate documentary will have you dancing in the aisles or your living room and singing “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom.”

Little Richard is set to premiere in movie theaters this spring and will be later shown on CNN.

A Michael J. Fox Movie

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie explores the beloved actor’s movie and TV career and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease. The film opens with Fox describing his first signs of Parkinson’s.

Not yet 30 years old, he was in Florida and after a huge bender, found that his right pinky would not stop shaking. The film chronicles his denial of the disease (using alcoholism and drugs), years hiding it from the public and his life today.

One scene early in the film shows the effort it takes for Fox to walk down the street. A woman greets him and as he turns to acknowledge the greeting, he falls on his face. He responds by making a joke. “Nice to meet you! You knocked me off my feet!” he calls. And returns to his feet to continue walking. This scene alone speaks volumes about Michael J. Fox, his humor, indomitable spirit and lack of self pity.

The documentary also provides a rich pictorial of Fox’s rise to fame. Born in Canada, Fox moved to Los Angeles at age 18 to pursue an acting career. At times he barely had enough money to feed himself or even buy a bus token. With his roles in Family Ties and Back to the Future, Fox becomes a superstar. He acknowledges that fame went to his head and that he was not a good husband and father.

Much of Still focuses on how Fox has dealt with Parkinson’s disease. One of the most moving moments occurs when asked if he is in pain, Fox confesses that he is always in pain. Many scenes show Fox with a new bruise or broken bone from a fall.

Still, which premiered on Sundance’s opening weekend, received an extended and emotional standing ovation with some in the audience in tears. Fox appeared for the Q&A, walking unsteadily and with great difficulty to the stage. An audience member thanked Fox and his foundation for its efforts to find a cure for Parkinson’s. Fox’s foundation has raised $2 billion for Parkinson’s research.

“That number, as impressive as it is, kind of in a way pisses me off,” Fox responded. “Because I’d hope that we’d be done with it by now. But science is hard.”

Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) directs this entertaining, powerful and inspirational documentary. Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ former wife, served as an executive producer. Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie will stream on Apple+ later this year.

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields

Model and actress Brooke Shields became famous and her mother’s meal ticket as a 11-month-old baby featured in an Ivory soap commercial. The public watched her every move as Shields, driven by her alcoholic overbearing stage manager mom Terry Shields, modeled sexually provocative Calvin Klein jeans and appeared unclothed as an 12-year-old in a coming-of-age love story. Shields was ubiquitous on TV shows and in magazines in the 1980s. Her teenage looks and having her beauty provocatively displayed became mainstays.

What happened to Brooke Shields along the way? The documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields tells the story of a woman determined to find her own voice.

Produced by Good Morning America host George Stephanopoulos and his wife, actress Ali Wentworth, and directed by Lana Wilson (who also did the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana), this two-part documentary explores the shocking sexualization of Shields beginning in her pre-pubescent years, with mostly male TV interviewers asking her what it was like to be a sex symbol. Juxtaposed against today’s #MeToo environment you could hear a collective gasp in the crowd as these clips played with Shields looking slightly vacant and shell shocked.

Shields does not hold back as she details her decision to table her career to attend Princeton, the consensual loss of her virginity, her rape by a unnamed Hollywood mogul, her marriage to tennis star Andre Agassi (he destroyed all his trophies after a fight with her), her postpartum depression and her very public fight with Tom Cruise over the benefits of anti-depressant medication and therapy (which Cruise decried as unnecessary as a Scientologist). The crowd at Sundance openly cheered for Shields during this part of the doc.

One of the most anticipated documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival is on Brooke Shields and her career that started from infancy (Courtesy the Sundance Institute)
One of the most anticipated documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival is on Brooke Shields and her career that started from infancy.

Pretty Baby concludes with Shields finding her voice and shows the warm and loving home she has created with her husband and two daughters.

There are lots of celebrity appearances in the documentary, including Shields’ childhood friend Laura Linney, Lionel Ritchie, Drew Barrymore and celebrity security expert Gavin de Becker. There are also some cringe-worthy interviews from Barbara Walters, Oprah, Matt Lauer and Mike Douglas with Shields. Hopefully we will never see those types of creepy interviews with young women celebrities again.

Pretty Baby received a well-deserved standing ovation. “I’ve always made it an important part of my journey to be as honest as I could,” Shields said in the post film Q & A.

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields will stream on Hulu later this year.

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm. She has reported on the Sundance Film Festival for 14 years. Follow her on Twitter @JaneHowze for more regular Sundance updates.

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