Music documentaries have become catalysts for re-evaluations of the musical legacies of celebrated and lesser-known musicians – especially if these artists rose to prominence in the pre-internet years of contemporary mass pop culture’s heyday. What the pre-internet years specifically offer is a treasure trove of previously unseen video footage (that couldn’t be captured and instantly uploaded on to non-existent social media or the internet) that document both the excitement and the seemingly mundane aspects of these celebrated musicians as they chart their path forward into the international limelight. The aims of the creators of these documentaries seem to be somewhat varied. In some cases, these filmmakers mean to spur the career resurgence of a music act that has faded from the forefront of public consciousness. In other cases, their goal is to paint a multi-layered portrait of the documentary’s subject. In the case of Netflix’s 4-episode Robbie Williams, the goal seems to tilt more towards the latter. It goes one step further in its endeavor to shine a spotlight on mental health, the vicious cycle that is addiction, and the raw imperfections and authenticity of its subject – the proverbial British bad boy and pop star Robbie Williams. The documentary is undoubtedly engaging but also has its share of missed opportunities. Regardless, it is a great watch and here is why.

The documentary chronicles the rise of Robbie Williams from his early years as one-fifth of Take That (a boyband and one of the most successful musical acts of all time created with the intention of being the British version of American boyband New Kids On The Block), to his meteoric rise as a celebrated but rebellious solo star (his recording contract with EMI Music was worth a staggering 80 million pounds – the second highest valued recording contract of all time), to his temporary reintegration back into Take That after they had pulled off one of the most stunning comebacks against all odds as a 4-piece, and finally to the enviable picture perfect reality as a family man and the proud husband (to American actress Ayda Field) and father of four children. Robbie Williams is a few months away from a chronological milestone (he turns 50 on February 13, 2024). The rapid onset of middle age has undoubtedly forced a deep introspection and reconciliation with his past which he refers to as “having him in a headlock”. This approach to making sense (while sitting in bed) of the past (which includes video footage of himself that he had never seen prior to the shooting of this documentary) in chronological order drives the narrative of the documentary.  In his words, there is also the ulterior motive of him exorcising the demons of his past.

The highlights of the documentary are as follows:

  1. A close-up view of the creative chemistry between Robbie Williams and his creative collaborator and songwriter Guy Chambers.

Despite the friendship between the two being engineered by Robbie’s management, it blossomed both personally and creatively. The video clips of them recording Robbie’s second album “I’ve been expecting you” in the breathtaking mountainous backdrop in Jamaica are absolutely priceless. Some of these clips might be familiar to those that remember the music video for “Grace” – a song from the second album. To Chambers, they were a band (which meant that he had a significant voice in the musical direction of the songs). Of course, this dynamic became stifling for Robbie at one point and he parted ways with the his partner in crime right before writing and recording the “Intensive Care” album (which instead saw him partnering with Stephen Tin-Tin Duffy – a former member of Duran Duran that left the band before they hit the big leagues). It is also a glimpse into a bygone era of destination-centric recording projects wherein the understanding was that the environment would act as creative fodder for musical inspiration. With the diminished fundamentals of today’s music business, these luxuries are available to a precious few – if any at all.


  1. Robbie Williams watching footage of his overt public lambasting of his former Take That bandmates as his career was on the upswing:

This section of the documentary showcases a man filled with contempt (the jury is still out as to whether the level of it was justifiable) for his former bandmates and one that delights in repeatedly rubbing salt in the wounds that stemmed from none of their solo careers coming remotely close to the glory of his own career. As Robbie Williams gets more than a glimpse into his well-documented pettiness, the depth of his embarrassment, shame, and remorse permeates through his facial expression rather quickly. No admission or apology for his behavior in interviews comes remotely close to him having to truly face up to his behavior in this realm. His oldest daughter Theodora (aka Teddy) accompanies him for this segment of the documentary as she questions him about his vitriolic hatred for the friends that had a non-trivial role in fueling his celebrity. He lies down on his bed almost hiding from himself saying “I never should have treated Gaz like that”. For context, “Gaz” is Gary Barlow – the de facto frontman and sole songwriter for the first chapter of Take That’s career. He was the one tipped to be the Take That member with the best solo career prospects thanks to his achingly beautiful voice and an inherent gift for songwriting. The press were referring to him as the “next Elton John or George Michael”. In a fickle turnaround, they soured on him just as Robbie Williams’ career started to skyrocket while Gary Barlow’s faltered and sadly, Robbie Williams relished every minute of it.

  1. A spotlight on the ugly side of celebrity and being a performer:

For guys across the world, Robbie Williams’ life defined conventional standards of perfection. He was filthily rich, roguishly handsome, successful, famous, lived a lavish lifestyle, and was the object of unbridled affection and lust from a large swathe of women across the globe. Yet, he struggled constantly with mental health – more specifically depression. A significant part of the documentary is devoted to this. He experienced panic attacks before performing to large audiences of over 90,000 people. The video footage of him fighting with his tour assistant to let him take steroids right before a performance (despite its unsavory side-effects that last days) is a tough watch to say the least. This will undoubtedly make concert attendees in particular recalibrate what they expect from their favorite musicians and also rethink the fairness and trade-offs (made by the artist) associated with meeting those expectations. Are we being collectively insensitive to those popstars that we claim to unconditionally adore?

The second aspect of this ugly side of celebrity is the relentless need of paparazzi to rob “stars” of their right to even the slightest iota of privacy. Failure to break the American musical mainstream paved Robbie’s path to a sanctuary from the media vultures overseas as he moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed the prized asset that was anonymity.

  1. A glimpse into the old concept of nurturing an artist and providing room for growth:

Robbie Williams’ success was not a given by any stretch. His first single “Old before I die” with its sound very much modeled on mid-90s Britpop was heavy on swagger but light on substance. It wasn’t the breakout single his management or label hoped he would have. In fact, his first three singles did nothing to move the needle for him. As a result, his debut album “Life thru a lens” initially had lackluster sales (most likely a function of remnant goodwill from the Take That years). The professional end seemed near until fate intervened in the form of his breakout down-tempo sing-out-loud single “Angels”. In fact, there is a video clip in the movie which shows Robbie Williams shouting out loud with a child-like excitement saying “I have a career” when he finds out that “Angels” hit a groundbreaking sales milestone. This is in staggering contrast to Robbie’s self-image at the start of the documentary where he admits he “cannot spell or add or subtract” thus suggesting that his career prospects (if any) could not be a function of academic acumen (since it was non-existent). “I left school at 16 with no qualifications whatsoever to join a boyband”.  More importantly, Robbie emphatically points out that in today’s music business, he would not be given four chances at singles to hit his stride. This is sadly true. The myopia of today’s pop music kingmakers does not allow them to consider the possibility of an artist growing or evolving. It is sad to think how many musicians today that could have been are tossed to the wayside because they didn’t come out swinging with their debut single. There would be no Robbie Williams in today’s music industry. That is a sobering realization that I hope key decision-makers in the music industry dwell upon if they watch this documentary.

The story of Robbie Williams brims with multi-layered potential for engaging storytelling – which is what drew me to watching this documentary. Sadly, there are some obvious missed opportunities here. They are as follows:

  1. An inadequate assessment of Robbie Williams’ failure to break the American market:

It is true that the US is the single largest consumer market for pop/rock music. A hit in America guarantees a worldwide hit. Sadly, the massive scale of the American market has led to the gatekeepers of America’s musical mainstream deluding themselves into believing that they are the only arbiters of consequence when it comes to assessing musical credibility.  The pool of gatekeepers shrunk dramatically after the Telecommunications Deregulation act of 1996 paved the way for conglomerates’ takeover of terrestrial radio (the single most powerful gatekeeper for pop/rock music in the US in the 90s and early 2000s). These companies also took away curatorial autonomy from radio DJs in favor of “centralized radio programming”. MTV’s penchant for reality TV shows while relegating the age-old music video format into oblivion meant that it no longer acted as an effective counterweight to music radio’s public opinion-shaping power. US radio was turning increasingly geo-centric and ageist. They also successfully perpetrated the false myth of “American tastes versus British tastes” as it applies to music. Robbie Williams was one of MANY British and European artists/bands that enjoyed widespread appeal across the globe (but not in the US). The documentary seems to miss this simple fact that without radio airplay, Robbie Williams stood no real chance in the US. Instead, they seemed to attribute his failure in America to his esoteric and quintessentially British personality and musical aesthetic. They lost a valuable opportunity to highlight the damage that American terrestrial radio companies have done by stripping their DJs of their playlist programming autonomy. This is the single biggest flaw of this documentary.

  1. An inadequate explanation of Robbie Williams’ resentment towards his Take That bandmates soon after he embarked on a solo career:

Robbie Williams explains that Gary Barlow, as Take That’s sole songwriter and de facto frontman was the band’s centerpiece and that he felt a non-trivial level of jealous towards Gary. But it does not explain the level of pettiness that Robbie Williams routinely displayed towards his Take That bandmates. Was there bullying in the band? Did Robbie feel like he was getting shortchanged from an artistic perspective at a time when it was unclear that he had any songwriting chops? What was it about Gary Barlow that provoked the intensity of his hatred? Why was none of that aimed at Take That’s former manger Nigel Martin-Smith (in fact there is virtually no reference to him in the documentary)? This bit did not feel very convincing at all – unless it was meant to highlight Robbie’s mental health issues.

  1. The UK media’s fickle relationship with Robbie Williams:

There is a video clip in the documentary that shows British pop princess Sophie Ellis-Bextor taking a not-so-subtle dig at Robbie Williams indicating that she is baffled by his mass appeal. This is an example of the UK media souring on him while the rest of the world (outside the US) still appears to be unwavering in their adoration of him. The documentary does not adequately address what causes the switch to flip either way as it applies to the acceptance of Robbie Williams by the UK mainstream. His “re-acceptance” also seems somewhat random. Was it a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” or was there more to it? This bit too was very unconvincing and frankly quite confusing.

  1. Robbie Williams’ connection with Guy Chambers:

Towards the end of the documentary, an older Guy Chambers is shown to be back in the fold but there appears to be no explanation for what brough him back to be a collaborator with Robbie. Given the focus on their musical split and his central role in Robbie’s growing success, one would expect at least some lip service to be paid to their reconnection. Yet, that appears to have been ignored – either intentionally or unintentionally. It does leave the viewer feeling like the filmmakers skipped something of consequence.

In our article titled “The illusory dream of cracking America” (published in 2014), we use Robbie Williams as the example for the US’ growing insularity from the pop music landscape of the rest of the world. Most of this can be attributed to the unwarranted arrogance of music’s gatekeepers (i.e. NOT actual DJs with curatorial autonomy) in the US since the mid-90s. It is my hope that documentaries such as these will pique the curiosity of the average American viewer and send him or her on an exhilarating journey of discovery of pop/rock hits overseas that were relegated to obscurity in the US. More importantly, I hope it encourages music aficionados to see the humans behind their musical idols. Last, but not least, the taboo of discussing mental health needs to be pushed to the past. Not wrestling with the demons of the past can lead to festering wounds that rear their ugly heads repeatedly through life. We are incredibly happy for Robbie Williams for finding solace in the beauty and stability of family. Kudos to his wife Ayda Field who really does come across as a grounded individual and anchoring force. Hopefully, this documentary also acts as a warning to those with a penchant for substance abuse that these vicious cycles can have unhappy endings even though Robbie had a happy one. We wish Robbie Williams the best as he enters middle age as a more grounded and self-aware man. His stylistic fluidity across 12 albums (15 if you include his “Under the Radar” b-sides albums) means that he has something to offer to a wide spectrum of musical tastes. The world outside the US embraced a lot of it. We just hope that the success of this documentary acts as another chance for the American masses to acquaint themselves with a stellar (albeit not perfect) body of work that the man at the center of this documentary has created.

STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars


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