Robbie Williams spends a surprising amount of the series in his gruts (Photos: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller)
Robbie Williams spends a surprising amount of the series in his gruts (Photos: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureNovember 14, 2023

Review: Robbie Williams’ new Netflix doco is a bumpy ride down memory lane

Robbie Williams spends a surprising amount of the series in his gruts (Photos: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller)
Robbie Williams spends a surprising amount of the series in his gruts (Photos: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller)

Tara Ward reviews Robbie Williams, Netflix’s compelling – if sometimes tough to watch – new documentary about the life and times of the British pop superstar.

What’s all this then? 

If you’re not too puffed from sprinting into Robbie Williams’ concert last weekend, you can watch this four-part documentary series that delves into the tumultuous career of the British pop icon. Directed by Joe Pearlman (who also made the Lewis Capaldi documentary How I’m Feeling Now), the series features decades of behind-the-scenes footage, home movies and interviews from throughout Williams’ career, as well as current footage of Robbie as a loving husband and father in Los Angeles. It promises – like every tell-all celebrity Netflix documentary – to show us Robbie Williams as we’ve never seen him before.

What’s good

It’s important to note that present-day Robbie Williams spends most of the documentary lying on his bed wearing nothing but a singlet and undies. Maybe it’s really hot in LA, or maybe Williams is taking the metaphorical stripping down of his past self quite literally. Either way, life is a stage. Imagine if Attenborough did his docos in his gruts? Whole new world. 

Undies aside, this is less of a deep dive into Williams’ music career and more of an excavation of the drama going on behind the scenes. We watch Williams watch hours of archival footage on a laptop, some of it for the first time. There’s cocky teen Robbie in Take That, Robbie on holiday with Geri Halliwell, Robbie under the influence reading comments about himself on social media. There’s an honesty and quiet thoughtfulness to Present Robbie’s responses, even though Past Robbie isn’t always likeable or easy to sympathise with.

We begin with a fleeting glimpse of Williams’ time in Take That before quickly moving on to his solo career, which soared with ‘Angels’ and slumped during bouts of mental health and addiction issues. Despite the years of hit songs and adoring crowds – the footage of the 375,000 people at Knebworth in 2003 is incredible – it was never enough for Williams. There’s a sense he was a cog trapped in his own machine: never independent, never at rest, never fully satisfied.

At home with Robbie Williams (Photo: Supplied)

There are moments when the footage is genuinely hard to watch, and times when Williams is clearly reluctant to take this bumpy trip down memory lane. He knows what’s coming: on-stage breakdowns, substance abuse, self-destruction. He fast-forwards through a performance of ‘Rudebox’ (a song he loved despite it being critically panned), he slams the laptop shut when he’s had enough. Although he’s watching from a place of health and happiness, it’s clearly not easy to revisit the parts of your life you’d rather forget.

The documentary also highlights how little we talked about mental health in the 90s and 2000s. In one interview, Williams admits he’s spent the past five weeks in a depressive episode, only for the reporter to say he’d hoped for a more upbeat comment. In 2006, an exhausted and unwell Williams has a panic attack on stage but carries on with the tour, too overwhelmed by the cost of cancelling. Nearly two decades later, it seems the support offered to Lewis Capaldi when he cancelled his tour due to his health would have also gone a long way to helping Williams.  

What’s not-so-good

It’s hard not to compare this to Beckham, the other Netflix doco featuring a Spice Girl love story. Beckham and Williams were both working-class teens who hit extreme fame in the 1990s, when celebrity culture was fierce and the tabloids even fiercer. But while Beckham’s story is told through a variety of voices that bring the 90s and 2000s to life for the audience, the only person talking about Robbie Williams here is Robbie Williams himself. 

This means Williams is always in control of his own narrative, but it also leaves the documentary without any wider context. There’s little sense of what else was going on in British pop culture at the time, or why Williams’ music was so beloved (and so derided), and there’s no-one else to confirm how immense the pressure must have been, or the cultural impact that he had. There’s also no mention of Williams’ childhood, which would help viewers understand the impact of joining England’s biggest boy band at the young age of 16. It might have been easier to connect with him if we had a better understanding of the scale of his fame and success. 

Verdict: Watch it. Williams fans will already be aware of many of his struggles, so perhaps this documentary will have a bigger impact on viewers who only know Williams for his on-stage bluster and bravado. It’s an illuminating insight into one of the world’s biggest pop stars who seemingly had it all, and an intimate and personal journey into the darker side of fame and celebrity. Above all, it’s a compelling reminder that we never really know what’s going on behind the spotlight.

Robbie Williams streams on Netflix. 

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