William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill Review | “May I be so bold…”

by Andrew Parker

Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary-slash-one-man-show William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill is definitely one for the fans of the actor in the title, with the primary fan in question being the man himself. It’s a curious and lacklustre work overall, but at times William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill piques the viewer’s interest by allowing its subject unfiltered opportunities to free associate and wax philosophical. Don’t expect a lot of nuts and bolts details about the Montreal born nerd icon’s decades in show business, but do expect William Shatner to talk at great length about what makes William Shatner tick. It’s absolutely an acquired taste, and it’s all rather formless, but if you’re already in the tank for the famously eccentric performer, then feel free to beam yourself up.

William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill is a documentary divided up into loosely relating chapters, and built around a multi-day interview with the Star Trek, Boston Legal, and T.J. Hooker actor. Shatner indulges Philippe by pretty much saying whatever is on his mind and seeing where it all goes. He makes connections to his past and present work with his personal life, looks back on the meanings (or lack thereof) of major changes to his career and relationships, and constantly ponders what it all could mean in the grand scheme of the universe’s design. And that’s pretty much it. Anyone looking for some “tea” or anecdotes won’t find a lot to latch onto here (with the most interesting thing I learned being that he was once Christopher Plummer’s understudy for a staging of Henry V). Actually, anyone hoping he would talk about his relationships to his many co-stars or the director he has worked with won’t find anything here, either. It’s the Bill Shatner show, and everyone else is just a nameless extra.

A more appropriate title for this might’ve been Shatner on Shatner. Although Shatner prattles on at great, lugubrious length about the pitfalls of having a big ego in show business, William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill – a title that places his own name above a title that includes his own name – is blissfully ignorant with regard to the egotistical nature of this entire enterprise. Everything in this film is about he feels or felt about everything that happened or is yet to happen in his life and his life alone. A moment where the actor curiously claims to not understand why so many people do impressions of his unique vocal inflections and line deliveries subtextually illustrates that William Shatner has the capacity for self-reflection, but little understanding of self-awareness or perception. William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill is a portrait of an artist who is in touch with the greater mysteries of the universe, but who has also created their own hermetically sealed microcosm within it.

It’s a lot to take in, and almost ninety minutes of listening to Shatner free associate between topics while a filmmaker just allows them to run wild is quite a lot to ask of all but the actor’s most ardent fans. But that’s not to say that there isn’t an endearing quality to Philippe’s profile of Shatner. The same earnestness that can be found in Shatner’s spoken word performances shines through here. While Shatner often comes across as a erudite, gregarious conversationalist caught up in their own self-importance, there’s no denying that he genuinely seems to love what he does, and he hopes that there’s meaning in his work and career. Shatner credits his longevity as a performer to always maintaining a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity, and whenever he’s talking directly on such a tangent, his emotional revelry comes across rather beautifully. Here’s a person who got bitten by the acting bug and got a lot of joy out of making people laugh and cry, and Shatner certainly gets that point across, even if it does tend towards the repetitive over the course of a feature length documentary.

That sense of wonder is also offset rather nicely by Shatner tapping into a sort of existential dread that he feels. Nonagenarian Shatner talks about the enormity of the universe and our place in it with the raw nerve energy of someone keenly aware that their time on Earth is coming to an end sooner rather than later. Shatner finds comfort in animals and the wonders of nature, but worries how much of it will still be around for future generations. He’s certainly in touch with his own mortality, and a lot of Shatner’s views on aging are rather profound, but once again, they have very little to do with the sort of topics most viewers are probably expecting from this, and the film’s subject offers no real solutions or suggestions, just some gloom to go along with the thoughts about himself.

Philippe, best know for his visual film essays and oral histories (78/52, Memory: The Origin of Alien, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, Lynch/Oz), tries to imbue a bit of his established style onto Shatner’s ramblings, but it’s an awkward marriage of style and subject outside of an effective prologue (where Shatner looks back on a traumatic childhood moment) and some clever uses of split-screens and comparison footage. William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill will appeal primarily to the most ardent fans of the actor; not of the works he has done across his career, mind, but the man himself; the sort of people who would willingly go to watch him give a live performance on stage, but not a Q&A session. By the end of William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill, the film’s subject has both overshared and remains an enigma. In bits and pieces, Shatner can seem quite profound, but a feature length stream-of-consciousness session naturally invites the viewer to tune in and out as they please.

William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill opens in select cinemas starting Friday, March 22, 2024.

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