It’s 1978, and Robin Williams is one month into his Mork & Mindy tenure and most of the way through his episode of HBO’s On Location. His set has been a ferocious demonstration of the quick wit and willingness to go for a laugh that, in the brief time he’s been in Los Angeles, have already caught the eye of George Schlatter (who put Williams in an ill-fated revival of Laugh-In) and Garry Marshall (who needed some convincing to cast the Juilliard-trained performer as an alien visitor to Happy Days’ mid-century Milwaukee). Onstage at the Roxy Theatre, Williams is killing, but his whims have led him into a few dead ends. Backed into one of these corners, he extends an invitation to the Roxy and the folks out there in TV land: “Come inside my mind and see what it’s like when a comedian eats the big one.”
A flurry of physicality, science fiction gibberish, and meta-commentary ensues, with Williams playing the parts of both the sputtering stand-up and the little man behind the curtain, frantically but rationally pulling levers and pushing buttons in an attempt to pull out of the tailspin. The response is rapturous. The audience—which includes fellow ABC stars Henry Winkler and Tony Danza—is dazzled, and on the comedian’s side once more. Williams would spend the rest of his career tracing and re-tracing this arc: wowing the crowd with his range and fearlessness, alienating them with a misstep, winning them back with a new show of ingenuity and/or vulnerability. And he’d do it all while stoking curiosity about his seemingly boundless creativity, which is why the “come inside my mind” bit works so well as the centerpiece and namesake for Marina Zenovich’s new documentary about Williams.
Like that fantastical scene, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is a product of warring impulses. On one side, there’s the allure of stepping inside Wiliams’ head for a couple of hours and getting a better picture of how he worked (in all senses of the phrase). On the other, there are the demands of the typical showbiz bio-doc: humble beginnings, meteoric rise, success, failure, renaissance, repeat. For all its ambition and access, Come Inside My Mind never truly slips the surly bonds of this blueprint. An impressionistic opening, told entirely in archival recordings and photography, later gives way to talking-head interviews and era-appropriate needle drops. (At least the blow-and-booze montage is set to Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire,” which makes an inspired segue to the Popeye segment.)
But the conventional packaging fails to stifle some bold, affecting choices. You won’t see Williams winning his Oscar for Good Will Hunting—“Oh man: This might be the one time I’m speechless”—in Come Inside My Mind, but you will see him losing a Critics Choice Award to Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis. (“It’s a tie with three people! You pretty much said ‘Fuck you, Robin!’”) Well before the On Location excerpt, Come Inside My Mind has already established its interest in the functions of the human brain, and how one human’s brain could spark so brilliantly yet doubt its abilities so profoundly. No easy answers are given, no definitive conclusions are formed, and the interviewees in Come Inside My Mind don’t give a diagnosis. Instead, their testimony forms an image of the man Lewis Black calls “the light that never knew how to turn itself off,” a father who could dial directly into his children’s sense of playfulness, and a friend who filled Billy Crystal’s voicemail with a string of nonsensical messages from made-up people.
Nobody’s better at forming that image than Robin Williams himself. His body of work was vast, and thanks to a propensity for going off-book, the amount of footage at Zenovich’s disposal is also deep. Come Inside My Mind shows Williams finding three ways to tell the same Mrs. Doubtfire joke; Mork & Mindy bloopers illustrate why Garry Marshall had to hire an extra cameraman just to track his star’s unpredictable movements. Outtakes from a Sesame Street appearance inspired by Williams’ hero Jonathan Winters are at turns hilarious and tear-jerking. More than any cradle-to-grave narrative, these are the primary reasons to accept the documentary’s titular summons: to witness Williams’ artistry all over again, to see something unseen from a performer who was so ubiquitous and so prolific.
At two hours long, Come Inside My Mind can’t be anywhere near as exhaustive as the recently published Williams biography, Robin, but it doesn’t need to be, either. Zenovich’s scope is wide, but her focus is sharp, and her film is covering subjects that can’t be fully illuminated: one because Williams is no longer alive to tell his part of the story, the other because the brain is much more complicated than a system of levers and buttons. (Also, this isn’t a science documentary.) You may come away from Come Inside My Mind with a better understanding of who Robin Williams was, but a likelier takeaway is in the reaction of that HBO On Location crowd: the laughs, the sense of awe, the expressions that all but say, “How did he do that?”