If you’re like me, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” will leave you feeling mostly, but not unhappily, blue. The HBO documentary is, essentially, two hours of clips from Robin Williams’s movies, chunks from his early and late sweaty stand-up sets, and priceless backstage bloopers — all curated with an eye to retrospective resonance. Not surprisingly, watching him tell the students in “Dead Poets Society” to “seize the day” is particularly poignant now that he is, as he puts it in the movie, “fertilizing daffodils.”
It almost doesn’t matter whether the documentary, which premieres Monday at 8 p.m., is any good. Williams is compelling enough on his own, in his run-on comedy bits — Elmer Fudd singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” anyone? — and in his more sincere moments, as well. He was an intensely dynamic man, even in those clips that seem dated, and he was a fascinating man, too, particularly when we glimpse his introverted side, the side he lived out when off the stage. “His pathos was seeking to entertain to please,” his oldest son, Zak, tells us. “And he felt when he wasn’t doing that, he was not succeeding as a person. That was always hard to see, because in so many senses he was the most successful person I know.”
But “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is a good movie, so all of the raw Williams material has been framed nicely, with comments from his friends, including Billy Crystal, Pam Dawber, and Bobcat Goldthwait, and from his family, including Robin’s half-brother, McLaurin, and Zak’s mother, Williams’s first wife, Valerie Velardi. Filmmaker Marina Zenovich takes an orderly, chronological look at Williams’ public life — a straightforward approach that belies the subtitle — and she makes efforts to get at the man behind the man we all felt we knew. Velardi is especially articulate on Williams’s early years of fame and cocaine, noting “Hollywood was eating us up” after we hear about Williams’s visit to John Belushi’s bungalow the night Belushi died.
The film begins with Williams’s lonely childhood, as his parents — a tense Ford executive father and a humor-loving mother — move frequently and go out often. More or less raised by the maid, young Robin would give voices to his toy soldiers in order to amuse himself. Cut to much later in the film, as we get to hear some of the kooky voice messages Williams would leave for Crystal. Naturally, the story ends with Williams’s death by suicide, after suffering from Lewy body dementia. At his request, his ashes were dumped into the Pacific Ocean, where Goldthwait and Zak later take a memorial swim. “It was good to jump in and actually know that my father’s presence and spirit was around,” Zak says.
“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is not a thorough film, by any means. Having just read Dave Itzkoff’s fine new biography, “Robin,” I was extremely aware of all the life events that Zenovich barely mentions along the way. Even if you haven’t read a Williams biography, you can easily see the film skipping over the dissolution of Williams’s second marriage, to Marsha Garces, and skipping over, almost entirely, Williams’s third marriage, to Susan Schneider. His struggle with alcoholism gets a nod, as does his womanizing ways early on — but neither is explored satisfactorily. We see moments from his movies, but we see very little about the ups and downs — and there were some profound downs — of his movie career. And the complexities of his suicide, and the illness that drove it, are only lightly touched upon.
Still, as a general survey of Williams’s life, as a collection of precious backstage outtakes, and as a nostalgic trip back into his comedy stylings, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” does the trick. It’s a sad, but satisfying, visit with a special man.
ROBIN WIILIAMS: Come Inside My Mind
On HBO, Monday at 8 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.