For the past two months it’s felt a little like my entire experience of the Nineties has been filtered back through the medium of Netflix documentaries. First, the Supermodels, a gentle stroll through the decade’s defining fashion imagery from the people who fronted the best of it. Then David Beckham, a sweetly euphoric reminder of what modern working-class heroism looks like. And now, Robbie.
For northern men my age, whether we like him or not, Robbie Williams is our rich, famous, candid reflection. He isn’t so much a hall of mirrors as a forensic microscope pointed at who we once were and what we became. I always loved him, that unvarnished temperament, brittle proletariat wordplay, sketchy search for self-knowledge. Despite hearing it a billion times, I’ll never tire of the opening four bars of Angels.
Every northerner knew a Robbie. If you entered a Manchester pub at any point during the Nineties, you would more than likely bump into one. Perennial show-off, hand-in-the-fire party-starter, funniest fellow to buy a round, guy the girls all fancied. The way we mistakenly mixed-up hedonism with self-improvement? That was Robbie, with a sideline of the nightmarish realities of what happens when you wish upon a star. He was a fabulous impersonator of garrulous self-belief.
His diaristic take on the documentary is the yin to the clean, super-heroic yang of the David Beckham doc
The TV show unpacks all of this, with a self-reflexive appetite to both indulge and demystify the complexities of the ego. Robbie’s Netflix documentary is the pop star looking back on a life from the middle of it, in a pair of underpants, in bed, wondering why he was born the person he was and what, exactly, that all meant. Like every bloke rolling over in the morning and squaring up to his Facebook memories. The levels of pathos are something else in what can be a heartbreaking, harrowing and somehow, because it is Robbie, still intermittently hilarious documentary.
Robbie was the ambitions we once held dearest, of being rich, famous, popular. He was the trainers we wore, haircuts we tried, drugs we took. He was the reason we missed the Jobseekers appointments we didn’t care about because of the nights out we bargained our futures with. He was a trail of regret we laid amid the torrid adventures of young manhood, our representative, centre stage, documented in unflinching detail.
Watching him recline on his luxurious bed taking it all in is not easy; the irony of him having a song in his back catalogue called No Regrets becoming steadily so arch you could drive a freight train beneath it.
Given his incredible familiarity, not just as Robbie Williams (person) but Robbie Williams (symbolic portal of us), I got a little teary watching the documentary last night. His diaristic take on it all is the forlorn inverse yin to the clean, super-heroic yang of the David Beckham doc.
If Beckham was the person every man secretly dreamt of becoming, Robbie was the one we had to quietly accept we really were. He was the exact opposite of all that beautiful, cool, studied stillness that the young Liam Gallagher made so imperviously statuesque, the restless soul you couldn’t help jump along with. The boy in class who made detention fun.
His remarkable ordinariness is the unique, strange potency of Robbie Williams, conjuring all of our angels and demons, the men we were before a generation below us began the intense struggle to neutralise the minefield of mental health. Robbie represents a time when alcoholics were pissheads, drug addicts caners, ADHD was “a bit hyperactive” and depression was “being moody”, something your nan told you to snap out of, a deeply misunderstood condition routinely treated by utter indifference.
The timing of Robbie’s personal examination of the insecurities and foibles that make him so identifiable could not be more pertinent. While reading some snippy reviews of the documentary — same as it ever was, writers with lofty university educations rarely understood the urgency behind his appeal — I couldn’t help but think of the mawkish tributes to actor Matthew Perry that followed his recent, early death, at an age Robbie is not far short of.
Robbie Williams was once the British Chandler and Joey, all rolled into one. If we are to turn the public interest in mental health slowly beginning to blossom into anything approaching practical resolve to help, we oughtn’t reserve our empathy for those struggling until after they’ve gone. Robbie Williams is still the useful emblem of a corner of British masculinity he always was. That’s why he’s loved.
Paul Flynn is a columnist