The Robbie Williams Documentary Portrays a Pop Star Evolving

Robbie Williams attends the launch of the Robbie Williams pop up in Covent Garden to celebrate his Netflix documentary, “Robbie Williams” at the London Film Museum on November 1, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by StillMoving.Net for Netflix)

Pop stars don’t have to do much these days to destroy themselves in public. Still, British singer-songwriter Robbie Williams managed to do so spectacularly even before it was the fashion. So it makes sense that his redemption should be a public slaying of his demons in his own style – complete with sharp sarcasm and fine Egyptian cotton sheets. The perfect stage is Netflix’s Robbie Williams documentary, the new four-part series from Ridley Scott Associates, and director Joe Pearlman (Louis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now).

The (highly bingeable) series is not a sweet dance to “Islands in the Stream” like fellow Brits Victoria and David’s documentary Beckham. Far from it. Williams’s confessional is his bed. Wearing a black vest and Versace briefs, he sits perched or under the covers, laptop on hand. He’s watching some 30,000 hours of archival footage from the last 30-something years of his career.

His writing partner, Guy Chambers (with whom he had a falling out), took most of the footage. Robbie is seeing much of it for the first time. “It’s astounding what’s happened in my life,” he says at the film’s start, and he still feels the past has him in a “headlock.”

“You’re only supposed to do this at the Pearly Gates with St. Peter. This looking back at your life.” It’s This is Your Life in underwear.

Cynics will say that the Robbie Williams documentary is a one-sided marketing ploy to keep his career going as he hits middle age (Williams is 49). And it’s true that the narrative of young stars’ struggles, their attainment of monumental success, crashes, burns, and coming back Zen-like has become a celebrity docu-trope. Just think Pamela, A Love Story (Anderson), Arnold (Schwarzenegger), and Beckham.

Yet, halfway into the Robbie Williams documentary, the cheekiness and bravado fall away to reveal a sensitive, vulnerable, and honest man, especially about himself. It’s not something one would say about Williams 10 years ago. Because what “Bobbins from Take That,” as he calls himself, manages to do in the film is sort out “the wreckage of the past” and emerge a man with substance.

And it took four hours to do it.

From a short career as a double-glazing salesman who failed his GCSEs, the equivalent of a US high school diploma, he was “dunked” into monumental fame with the 90s boyband Take That at 16, causing bad blood with the band’s nominal leader Gary Barlow.

Pushed out of Take That, Williams went into his “let’s get wrecked” period, drinking and doing cocaine. At the worst of it, he was “addicted to prescribed speed, oxycontin, Adderall, Vicodin, morphine,” he says in the film. “You know, the greatest hits.” He also struggled with crippling self-doubt, watched his budding solo career almost fall off a cliff, and was carted off to rehab by his manager to dry out. Rehab, Chambers, and the song “Angels” snatched Williams back from the jaws of defeat. Just don’t ask about “Rudebox.”

Portrait of Robbie Williams provided by Netflix. The Robbie Williams documentary

Watching your younger iteration self-destruct would be difficult for anyone. For an artist who ranks among the best-selling solo artists of all time globally (as big as the Beatles) and is the best-selling non-Latino artist in Latin America, it’s excruciating.

The British press didn’t help, either. It called him “Blooby Williams,” an aging member of a passe boy band with a mediocre voice singing mediocre pop songs. He tried to speak about mental illness in the 90s and was belittled and ridiculed for it.

We are talking about an artist who sold over 77 million records worldwide (he tried to break into the US market in 1999 but failed) and moved more albums in his native UK than any other British solo artist in history. He has seven UK No. 1 singles and, in 2002, was paid an unprecedented £80 million ($100 million) by EMI. He also wrote hit after hit.

“He’s a very natural songwriter – I would just try to keep up. ‘Angels’ is a good case in point: he started singing the verse, and I directed him towards the chorus,” Chambers said in a recent interview. “Let Me Entertain You,” “Strong,” “She’s The One,” “Rock DJ,” “Kids,” and “Millenium” are just some of the songs that became worldwide anthems. He even sang “Angels” in Spanish.

But Williams is in a very different place now. A contented father of four beautiful children with a loving wife and riches beyond his wildest dreams, Robbie has arrived at a place of acceptance. He still looks good on the threshold of 50 with a messy salt-and-pepper mullet and a go-to Gucci cardigan, which he alternates with his briefs. The silver and diamond combo of a bracelet and necklace he wears that reads “Fuck Off” tells you that parts of the Robbie of old are still there.

Robbie Williams in his underwear, in bed, filming the Robbie Williams documentary

One of the most telling moments in the film is the 2003 concert at Knebworth – the biggest event in UK music history – and the pinnacle of Robbie’s career. Before 125,000 people, an emotional Williams spells out what he is and what, all these years later, he has finally embraced. “There’s an awful lot of shit written about me almost every week,” he says in the film’s footage. “And I want you to remember something for me. This is Robbie Williams. This is what I do for a livin. – I’m a singer. I’m a songwriter. I am a born entertainer. This is what I do.”

There are other poignant scenes, like Robbie singing “Angels” with his daughter, and difficult ones, like when the singer has a panic attack on stage during a concert in Leeds. “That moment (in Leeds) in episode three, when he’s talking about what he’s going through – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone, in the modern era or not, be so cognisant of what they’re going through and able to express themselves so clearly,” Perlman, the documentary’s director, said in an interview about the film.

Watching Robbie watching himself is cathartic – both for the artist and the viewer. At the end of the Robbie Williams documentary, as Williams walks into an arena he is about to play at, he switches to a reflective mood. “Who knows what is to come?” he says. “But now I realize that in this period, and for the longest period in my life ever, I suppose, yeah, this is a golden period.”

“There is an acceptance to what my life is. And I don’t try to push against it or fight against it. And I have figured out how to live in it.”

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