Through the lens of three decades of footage, Robbie Williams talks about his beginning as a teenager in a very, very successful boyband, a solo career, 25 years in music, and the highs and lows that shaped him as an artist.
Direction: Joe Pearlman
“I sit and wait/Does an angel contemplate my fate/And do they know/The places where we go/When we’re grey and old.” – ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams
o look back on your life from the time you are sixteen but not good at school to a point when you’re a happily married man and a father of four children, can be an overwhelming, emotional experience for anyone. But looking back on your life as a huge musical artist is something else altogether. Before we jump into the life and times of Robbie Williams, here is a small deviation.
The success of The Beatles as well as the solo career[s] of John Lennon and Paul McCartney are well-known to anyone who remotely follows music from the West. After all these years, The Beatles continue to be a part of pop culture vernacular and an inspiration to many who came after them.
But what about boybands?
A number of boybands have existed throughout the decades. The ones that are most remembered include the likes of Backstreet Boys [who are presently riding on their past success] as well as New Kids on the Block, Boyzone, Boyz II Men, and NSYNC. There are several others but they never achieved the kind of success the aforementioned did.
If you include acts that were not based on the male gender alone, Spice Girls, All Saints, Destiny’s Child and The Bangles immediately come to mind.
But, perhaps, what none of us knew or simply overlooked, is that if anyone from Britain managed to become the most successful musi-cal outfit after The Beatles was never a critically acclaimed rock act. It was a boyband called Take That. If John Lennon was revered as a solo artist, the same can be said about Robbie Williams.
This and more becomes clear with the documentary series called Robbie Williams, which recently released on Netflix.
Made as a four-part series, it not only recounts the heights of fame that Robbie Williams reached – with and without Take That – but also provides an answer to the quint-essential question of why so many child stars come undone as they reach adulthood.
As Robbie Williams notes, it is because when a young teenager such as him or so many other child stars (unnamed) are thrust into an adult world, the gap between growing up and being a grown up is taken away. Their behavior is not that of an adult and they often look for ways to offset that gap. This can include doing drugs, or relying on alcohol or pills to simply fit in.
The purpose of this docu-mentary, he confesses, is to sort out the “wreckage” of his past even as he continues to make music, travel the world with a fan following still in place.
It shows us how fame can break pop stars no matter how successful they look onstage or in music videos or at award shows.
“I don’t want to rock, DJ/But you’re making me feel so nice/ When’s it gonna stop, DJ?/’Cause you’re keepin’ me up all night.” – ‘Rock DJ’ by Robbie Williams
How a singing and dancing boyband is the most successful act since The Beatles is rather perplexing. But taste is subjective.
In this docuseries, Williams is sitting on a bed and is watching the footage on a laptop. He provides context to the highs and lows in his life as an artist, the success and scrutiny that followed him and much more. What is good to see is how he embraces the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
One reason this footage is to be believed is because for three decades Williams had been filmed behind the scenes. Like many of us who watch this series and learn about the man, he, too, is witnessing this footage for the first time.
Among some of the most important issues that emerge is how age can play a strong role. For instance, when Williams joined Take That, he was the youngest member while the others were, in his words, “20, 21, 23”.
To him it was a band where he looked up to his bandmates as older “brothers”.
The band was tailored to suit singer/songwriter Gary Barlow. Success came far too quickly to Take That and it meant relentless tours and more tours, screaming fans and being followed by the press nonstop. Others could manage it but the baby of the group, Williams took it all in and used alcohol as a way to keep up with everything around him. There were gigs in which he sang and danced with his fellow bandmates, around the world but as he confesses in the documentary, he had no memory of those perform-ances because he was hungover half the time.
Intimate and forthcoming, it not only shows his beginning in music with Take That, but how his behavior eventually made the rest of the group anything but pleased.
Beginning in the 1990s, an exhilarating experience turned into a problem by the time Williams turned 19. And Robbie Williams, younger than other members, decided to leave the band in order to pursue a solo career.
The press had dubbed the group as “the most popular British group since the Beatles”.
Once he left the group, the experience of being a solo artist was not easy. His record didn’t sell well and, in the eyes of his record label, was certainly a flop particularly in comparison to the success of Take That.
He started by working with Guy Chambers with whom he made five albums. The song ‘Angels’ rescued him from potential failure and obscurity and climbed charts all around the world. His big break as a solo artist had begun.
After that, Williams didn’t look back. He toured the world, took breaks as he pleased, hung out and hooked up with other stars including one member of Spice Girls and one member of All Saints. But they were never serious relationships and he was not looking for one during that period.
But a man who played sold out shows in several countries with an audience of 80,000 and more was heavily criticized in his home country. His reliance on alcohol was over when he spent two months in rehab.
But as success followed him everywhere he went, he fell in the pitfall of drugs including pills, steroids before a show and panic attacks and depression followed. To give away the entire series is not the point. You have to see it in its linear as well as nonlinear structure to understand just how high Take That and Robbie Williams flew.
In the end, it goes to show that the life of an artist is not what it seems. We might see the money but what is happening inside their hearts and minds is something else altogether. Fame has its pitfalls and no documentary reflects on it as intimately as this one because Robbie Williams reflects on the footage and tells the whole truth. So, is there a way out? Yes, age, relentless tours, reliance on drugs and alcohol are some of the traps that you need to be aware of and knowing when to take a break is just as important. If making money is the only goal, things will fall apart at some point. And in retrospect, there is wisdom in his words. To learn more, watch the documentary series. It is entertaining, intimate, forthcoming and puts excessive fan following and how to deal with it in context.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection