Imagine being so huge that you could sell out just about every stadium in the world, save one country. That is the story of Robbie Williams, who at one time was arguably the most successful recording artist alive, but could not get more than the faintest of acknowledgements in America. For a comparable, picture a world where George Michael was every bit the international sensation that he was, but never had a single top 40 hit in the USA. Or, maybe to put it another way, think of Oasis minus a ‘Wonderwall.’
Williams got his first taste of success in the Brit boy band Take That, who were wildly successful in Europe and scraped the top ten in America with the single ‘Back for Good.’ Williams was only 16 at the time, and his four other band mates were in their early twenties. As Williams points out in the series, the difference between being 16 and in your twenties is “massive.” Despite the group’s success, Williams became a bit of a problem child—drinking and drugging way too much, while also wanting to take more of the spotlight from Gary Barlow, Take That’s lead songwriter and (at the time) most famous member. Their split was acrimonious, and Williams’ bad behavior before and after is at times uncomfortable to watch, even for him.
The framework of the series is built around Williams watching old videos of himself (thousands of hours were recorded) and essentially narrating his story. When we meet present day Williams, he is gray, disheveled, and has a passing resemblance to David Johansen. He’s a man with a huge house who finds it hard to get out of bed. When Williams reveals that he’s almost 50, I gasped. He looks much older.
A point that caught up to me later in the show when Williams, nearing the apex of his youthful fame, states that “I’m 24.” As he spoke those two words, I noticed lines on his face that no one prior to the age of 35 should have. He looks like the oldest 24-year-old to ever walk the earth.
But why? Over the four episodes of Robbie Williams we discover a man with deep insecurity, anxiety, and depression. A man with a penchant for self-loathing that was exacerbated by the cruelty of the British tabloids. For all of Williams’ success, he couldn’t look out from the stage of the huge arenas he filled and take in the adoration of 90,000 fans and place their affection over the contempt of the UK rags. As Williams’ incisively says at one point, “I believed my own press. Unfortunately, my press is the British press.”
It’s not like Williams was unsuccessful or didn’t receive a fair number of good reviews (especially for a pop star). As the runt of the boy band litter, he quickly overshadowed his former bandmates when his power ballad ‘Angels’ soared into the top three of the UK charts. It’s a stunner of a tune that in a backward way became his biggest hit in the USA when Jessica Simpson covered the tune (in typically soporific fashion) and took it into the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
On the verge of being dropped by his label, ‘Angels’ saved Williams’ career. I remain mystified why his version didn’t blow up here. While in the wrong hands (see Simpson’s version, or better yet, don’t), the song becomes overly sentimental tripe, Williams always had an edge in his voice that could either be cheeky or in the case of ‘Angels,’ remarkably vulnerable. He could make the lyrics matter.
After taking off like a rocket in Europe, Williams’ tried to conquer America, but never came close. His brilliant first single in the States, ‘Millennium,’ only scraped the Hot 100, and ‘Angels’ fell short too. Both songs deserved better. ‘Millennium,’ which sounded like the best James Bond theme that wasn’t a James Bond theme (in large part due to its liberal cribbing of the melody from You Only Live Twice) is an absolute stunner of a cut, but could gain little purchase here.
Still, Williams and his songwriting partner Guy Chambers couldn’t miss in Europe. Hit after hit after hit just kept coming out of them. How big was Williams? Well, he sold 75 million records, held the Guinness Book World Record for most concert tickets sold in a day (a whopping 1.6 million back in 2006), and even though he’s taken extended periods off, he is currently sitting on a net worth of $300 million. Not bad for a guy almost no one has heard of on this side of the Atlantic.
All of his success is made all the more impressive when you see how self-destructive he was. Aside from the boozing and the drugs, he often ruined professional (Take That and Chambers) relationships and personal ones (Nicole Appleton from the girl group All Saints and Geri Halliwell of The Spice Girls) by being so insecure as to be paranoid, and a nearly impossible person. Yet somehow, despite all his foibles, he couldn’t get in his own way in such a fatal manner as to ruin his career.
How did he avoid this? Well, by being really damn good. Everyone’s mileage may vary when it comes to pop stars, but there can be no denying that Williams has a distinctive voice, clever lyrics, and has created song after song with huge earworm-inducing hooks.
That’s one reason why you should watch Robbie Williams. Because you can catch up on nearly twenty years of should have been big hits. The other is how willing Williams is to take accountability for his behavior and how well director Joe Pearlman reveals his subject, even to the point of great discomfort.
Sure, we’ve all seen plenty of “perils of fame” documentaries, but this series really gets down to the bone of a boy who caught lightning in a bottle, couldn’t deal with it, but couldn’t stop it either. Not until he effectively quit the business after he married actress Ayda Field and settled down with four kids in a Los Angeles mansion–about as far away from Britain as he could get.
When you see Williams as a young man returning to London on his triumphant ‘Close Encounters’ tour in 2006, he’s practically a shell of a man. He performs an entire set at Leeds under the weight of a panic attack, and barely makes it through the second night as well. In the moments you watch him perform, you can see the terror in his eyes, but you also see him not quit when every fiber of his being is begging him too. It’s really dramatic stuff, and in some not entirely healthy way, admirable too. “The show must go on” as they say.
As the series comes to a close, we see an older, wiser Williams looking to reintroduce himself to the world stage after more than four years away. As he is packing and getting ready to leave his house, his wife and four children surround him. His very young son comes to give him a hug. Williams asks him, “Who loves you?” The boy cheekily replies, “Mummy!” Williams then asks, “Who else loves you?” The boy responds, “Daddy!”
Williams responds, “Yeah, I do.” Said with a slight pregnant pause and the sort of soberness that only a man who has seen some shit, and is about to go back into the thing that caused him to see that shit, can say. In exposing himself in the manner that this series has, he makes himself, maybe for the first time, easy to root for.
I know I am, and I think if you watch Robbie Williams you will too.