June 21, 2024

The past 18 months have produced an abundance of celebrity documentaries, but Netflix’s newly-released “Robbie Williams” sets out to do something different. Charting Williams’ rise from clueless teenager in British mega-boy band Take That to solo superstar, there’s no talking heads and no glossing over the less salubrious moments in Williams’ 35-year-career, including his relationships, drug-taking and depression.

Director Joe Pearlman, the filmmaker behind last year’s “Harry Potter” reunion and Netflix’s recent Lewis Capaldi documentary, set out to make a series about Williams confronting his extraordinary life head-on. Eschewing traditional documentary formats, the four-part show sees Williams interviewed, mostly in bed, while watching archive footage stretching back three decades.

“We did an initial interview and Rob gave a brilliant interview but it was an interview I’d heard before,” Pearlman says. “We were like, there’s so much more here. We’ve seen the footage, we know there is; how can we force him to look back? How can we force him to re-evaluate? And we came up with the idea of letting him relive his life.”

The result is as much a documentary about mental health – and the pitfalls of celebrity – as Williams himself. Which is precisely what Pearlman was hoping to achieve. “There are plenty of documentaries about Robbie Williams. This is the definitive one,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to make.”

As “Robbie Williams” drops on Netflix this week, read on to find how Pearlman found himself moving into Williams’ L.A. mansion and why he thinks honesty is the most important factor in making a celebrity documentary.

How did you get involved in the project?

Louis Mole [a producer at Ridley Scott Associates] said to me, “Robbie Williams has got 30,000 hours of archive that he’s never seen before. And I was like, “OK! Can I see some of it?” I went into central London, went into a basement where they had all these tapes, popped one in and immediately was like, “This is amazing. This is everything that you could possibly want from someone.” It was so detailed, it was so all-access, but also, it’s the kind of archive that a filmmaker would never get when someone is alive. The equivalent films like “Amy” [Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary about Amy Winehouse], those are done when the people have passed away and it’s a retrospective. Whereas I was presented with this opportunity to make something with the person and knowing I had essentially his life sitting on tape presented a really, really interesting filmmaking question. Which is, what would it be like to relive your life?

“Robbie Williams” director Joe Pearlman with Williams

Unlike the recent “Beckham” documentary, which interviewed everyone from Anna Wintour to the receptionist at Manchester United Football Club, Williams is the only talking head in this. Why did you decide to go down that route?

From the beginning, I said to Netflix and to the execs: “I do not want talking heads in this show.” They all said I was insane: “How could you possibly do that? We have to hear other people’s opinions.” And I was dogged in my approach that we did not need to hear other voices — this is Rob’s story to tell, this is his archive to show — and we need to be immersed in that. This needs to be experiential. I want to hear from Rob; I want to look in the man’s eyes as he tries to lie to me, tries to weave his way out of a question. And without that intensity you’re never going to get more than the fluff. I was privileged to be given this archive. This is the kind of thing you don’t get when someone is alive so the idea of not seeing that person’s face and it just being [other people’s] voices to me was madness.

Robbie Williams has been famous for such a long time and it feels like people know his story. What challenges did that present?

You read the books and the stories he’s told about Take That and about mental health and all that, but it just always felt like there was more to me. And I never felt anyone had got deeper with him and pushed him and really forced him to look at himself. Everyone has their idea going into this but you’re not coming out thinking the same thing; it’s just not happening. I presented a human to you and that’s what I wanted to do.

Why do you think he felt the time was right to tell his story in a documentary?

He’s 50 and I think that’s kind of a pivotal age, certainly for men, to start to understand what happens next. Like, what does this all mean? “Legacy” is a word that gets thrown around a lot and he is talked about as a British icon, a cultural icon so I think for him, it was: “Right, but my past is this thing that I really struggle with, you all see me one way but I can’t see any of that. So how do I start to understand what I went through? Maybe not take joy in it, maybe not take pride in it, but just see me through your eyes.”

Unlike other celebrity docs, Williams didn’t have any editorial control over this, is that right?

Yes.

Which obviously gives you total freedom over the narrative. What is the balance for you of making a warts-and-all documentary after you’ve spent so much time with someone?

It can be very tricky. I guess there are parts of the interview you’re pushing down as far as you can, knowing that those are going to be challenging moments. But Rob said to me, “I want to give you everything, I want to be truthful, I want to make something different.” Well, we’re going to go places that are going to feel uncomfortable then.

We went through something together on this one. [Williams’ wife] Ayda said to me, that he used to come to bed at the end of our sessions and just be staring up at the ceiling. I can imagine. I’d get phone calls at one o’clock at night from Rob talking about what we went through that day. I wanted to be a friend in this and I wanted to make this with him so it’s challenging, but we’ve got to do this for it to be real. Far too often I think it’s obvious the [documentaries] that aren’t. I don’t ever want to be in that category.

The documentary starts off with Robbie in the middle of the night in his kitchen. Were you shooting at all hours?

Yeah. We’d be there a lot. I mean, we basically moved in for a month. We turned up at the house [in L.A.] at 9 a.m. every day and I’d be leaving at 3 a.m.

This feels like the moment of celebrity docs, whether it’s “Harry & Meghan,” “Beckham” or “Coleen Rooney: The Real Wagatha Story.” Why do you think we’re so interested in watching them?

I think people are fascinated by the people behind the curtain, the little peek behind the curtain. Which I think is understandable, because we want to know who these characters are. The reality of the peek in the curtain is it’s a peek and it’s more often than not a constructed peek.

I will only do things with characters who want to let me in. That’s part of the deal. We’re not going to do this if you want to push your own agenda; we’re not going to do this if you’re not going to work with me. I think that’s a huge part of it and audiences are desperate to see that. They want to see honesty and they want to see Robbie. There’s incredible films about celebrity out there but there are very specific ones that we all know that are fluffy and they serve the brand and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that, people want that, but I don’t want to make those. I don’t just want your fans [to watch], I want everyone. I want people who go to a Scorsese film to watch this. Why wouldn’t they? It’s filmmaking.

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