SXSW Film Review: You Can Call Me Bill

A meditation on death from the liveliest man you'll see

credit: Robert Muratore

William Shatner is going to die, and he's made some peace with that. It's the idea that everything else will die that terrifies and infuriates him.

Death is, after all, the shadow that hangs over You Can Call Me Bill, a supposed documentary about the life of the actor, musician, horse racer, raconteur, author, comedian, dog lover, grandfather, husband, friend, and icon. But it's not really a biography. Nor is it simply an extended interview, undertaken over several days in an empty soundstage by filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe (Lynch/Oz, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist).

What it really becomes is a performance piece by Shatner, one at least on nodding terms with Spalding Gray's era-and genre-defining Swimming to Cambodia. But it would not be becoming of Shatner to merely hold the stage, as he does in footage from one-man shows and concerts. Instead, he looks past the camera to Philippe, answering often unheard questions that form the structure of five chapters, each named after a song on his last album, Bill.

Yes, album: he's a true polymath, never stationary. In his wide-ranging and free-wheeling conversation/monologue, accompanied by archive footage, animation, and , there's never a sense of hubris about it all, but instead a desperate need to do something.

Yon Can Call Me Bill also shares some DNA with another SXSW 2023 documentary, STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie. There's an earnestness, an openness from a celebrity who is deeply aware that their fame cannot save them. In Fox's case, from his early onset Parkinson's Disease: for Shatner, the simple fact that being 90 is a risky enterprise. And yet both men are still trying to cram in as much living as they possibly can. Not so much raging against the dying of the light, as always grasping at that last divine glow.

Philippe catches the sheer energy of being around Shatner: having personally interviewed him a few times, and moderated Q&As with him, I can testify that the only wisdom I can share is "hang on for dear life, and just wait for that wicked sense of humor." During Shatner's sit-down conversation during SXSW with Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, he lightly mocked his host for his signature powder blue suit: not out of malice, but because of his impish humor and quick wit, both character traits that would be insufferable if it weren't for his own self-criticism.

And self-reflection is here in unexpected ways. Shatner has clearly considered himself - his weaknesses, his foibles, his failures - and come to peace with most of it. When he does second-guess himself, it's in the most unexpected but somehow most sensible of places, especially when it comes to line deliveries (he is, after all, an actor first and foremost). Yet this isn't a film of regret. If there is a negative emotion, it's disappointment: that there's work left to be done, experiences he will never have, and his overriding fear that humanity is messing up the environment to a terminal degree. As he howls, primally, in one of the most uplifting sequences, what can we do? That's not a note of despair. That's Shatner imploring us. To do. Like he has done.

You Can Call Me Bill

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

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