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9 November 2023

The confessions of Robbie Williams

A new Netflix series can’t explain how the singer’s bombastic, revealing songs made him the self-flagellating poster-boy of a generation.

By Fergal Kinney

“At what point did you realise,” Robbie Williams sang in “Advertising Space”, “that everybody loved your life but you?”

A ballad about Elvis’s downfall, the 2005 song was the last of Williams’s run of twenty consecutive top 10 singles which began in 1997. Williams joked about the song, deflecting the idea that it could possibly be any good, but it endures as a sensitive and powerfully sad song about fame. “You had that look upon your face,” mourns its chorus, “advertising space.”

Netflix, clearly banking on the nostalgic impulses of British millennials this autumn, follow its delicious but steely Brand Beckham workout with a similar four-part profile of Robbie Williams. What Beckham was to football, Robbie was to pop music. Both were markers of the New Labour era fetish for male celebrities who had transcended their suburban working-class roots through populist excellence and previously unimagined commercial ambition. And they both dated Spice Girls.

Where Beckham was filled with talking heads and contextual archiving footage, the focus here is claustrophobically tight. Watching Robbie Williams with subtitles gives you a clue: few voices appear except “older Robbie” and “younger Robbie”. Here, the Older Robbie – in underpants and a vest on the bed of his LA home – watches and comments on a cache of previously unseen home video footage of his young and chaotic doppelganger.

Younger Robbie’s story begins in early 1990s Manchester with Take That. For any viewer curious about the subject’s upbringing, there is no information provided about his childhood. This means no mention of Robbie’s father, a club singer and light entertainer on the Phoenix Nights circuit who – presumably – was either source or inspiration for some of his son’s showman talents. They were gifts he would need when, as we see, he was sacked by Take That for his escalating benders, beginning an addiction loop that sustains throughout the series.

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“My career was falling off a cliff,” says Older Robbie, “it looks like it’s it for the Williams boy.” The 1997 release of “Angels” changed everything, but the series avoids any insight into the song and why it might have connected with people to become a Y2K standard of funerals and appear in the Desert Island Discs of politicians such as Ed Miliband to bolster their everyman credentials. Some of this might be owing to that song’s contested genesis, which goes unmentioned; Ray Heffernan, an Irish songwriter, claims to have been paid only £7,500 for his demo version of “Angels”, about his wife’s miscarriage.

[See also: Everyone hates the critic]

When the show is interested in Williams’s actual job, it takes his scab-picking at face value. “I wanted to write ‘Karma Police’,” grieves Older Robbie about the song “Rock DJ”, “but I was writing ‘Karma Chameleon’.” It’s a good line, but it speaks to a documentary that is entirely incurious about how Williams and Guy Chamber’s songwriting partnership became one of the most lucrative in British history. Their sad lad songs had an enormous female audience, who grew up and are now pop stars like Self Esteem or CMAT. Both artists have named his bombastic confessional style as an influence: what great talking heads they might have made.

Instead, Robbie Williams is terrific viewing if you like the insides of dressing rooms and tour buses. This changes briefly during memorable footage from Younger Robbie’s Mediterranean holiday in 2000 with Geri Halliwell. In blissed-out sunshine and enveloped by blue sea, the two temporary emigrés from fame struggle to remember what to do with anonymity – chewing over chart positions and B-sides by the pool. This reminds me how much more Molly Dineen’s acclaimed 1999 documentary about Halliwell was able to say about fame by doing so much less.

In 2007, Mark Fisher wrote that Williams was “the ‘as if’ pop star”, whose performance of irony was an avatar for postmodernity, “signalling – with perpetually raised eyebrows – that he doesn’t mean it, it’s just an act”. I don’t think this is what was going on at all. Watch the footage of Williams’s career-peak Knebworth shows here, though, and instead there’s a terrifying lack of irony from a boy who expected almost total salvation from the stage. He has that look upon his face, advertising space.

The series improves, though with the uncomfortable sense that it has arrived at what it is really interested in: what Older Robbie refers to as “the acute breakdown of me as a person”. This series is not above using mental health crises as a cliffhanger.

A sober Williams begins taking steroid injections to cope with an imperial world tour. Who benefited from those performances? The film doesn’t think to ask. It’s a story Younger Robbie at least knew from Elvis, with the (genuinely postmodern) flourish of being addicted to his own backlash in the press. He reels off the names of Sun journalists and editors by name in a backstage paddling pool with his on-payroll best friend. Older Robbie narrates footage of himself having a panic attack during a headline show in Leeds. This prompts a full relapse, all intimately presented for our comfort viewing.

Joe Pearlman, the director, whose Bros: After the Screaming Stops is a toe-curling masterpiece of the modern pop doc, struggles to find a meaningful story to tell about his subject here. While Williams’s self-flagellation can fill books – specifically Chris Heath’s two excellent volumes of gonzo biography – in Robbie Williams, revelation stops being revealing. There is no context, no comparison: Harry Styles or George Michael would have been a start. When its long-trailed redemption arc shows Younger Robbie becoming Older Robbie, the film whizzes by as though exiting a bank heist.

This week in the Quietus, Daniel Dylan Wray warned that music documentaries increasingly made in conjunction with their subjects were becoming a PR exercise in doc-washing. A side-effect of this is missing out on filmmakers who make documentaries because they’re fascinated by their subject. This is replaced, as here, with the smooth surfaces of the brand collaboration. Here, the neuroses of Robbie Williams and the default style of Netflix combine to make an exhausting if sometimes entertaining series that will tell you seemingly everything about Robbie Williams. Except, though, that he was a pop star and a singer-songwriter.

[See also: Did celebrity ruin David Beckham?]

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