‘Come Inside My Mind’ Traces the Life and Explosive Energy of Robin Williams

The new HBO documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is a celebration of the great actor and comedic genius. It functions as more of a tribute, covering the life of Robin Williams from birth through his meteoric rise and closing with his death in 2014. It is never easy to uncover just what makes someone tick, and director Marina Zenovich shies away from probing too deep into the artist and his demons. But as a gesture of recognition, documenting the essential moments of Williams’s career, this is a fascinating, heartfelt biography.

Born in Chicago, Williams grew up under the shadow of a serious father and a lively, comedic mom. The family moved to San Francisco, where Williams found himself enveloped by the culture of the 1960s. He discovered his own talent for the stage late in life during his college years in studying political science in Kentfield, California. Old classmates recall their astonishment at seeing Williams, who began as a rather shy kid, blossom into a dynamic stage presence. He soon found his true calling when attending the Juilliard School in New York City (Christopher Reeve started the same year with him). Making a living as a stand up, Williams soon gravitated to Los Angeles to try and make a career. Fellow comedians who knew him at the time, such as David Letterman, still look amazed when describing Williams’s early gigs as a powerhouse with a fast mind. Once Williams is cast in the sitcom “Mort & Mindy,” he begins to skyrocket to the Hollywood heights. Major film roles and two marriages follow, all adding to a life driven by a fierce talent, but harboring particular, internal demons always lurking in the corners of Williams’s mind.

Zenovich speeds through Williams’s life, framing the key moments with interesting insights from participants and friends. What emerges is an image both familiar and revealing. Some documentaries or movies work better the more you know about the subject, but here the less you know about Robert Williams the more engaging it can be. Rarely covered figures from the actor’s life, such as his half-brother McLaurin Smith Williams discuss the unique structure of their family. Robin Williams essentially grows up alone, with decent parents, but isolated into his own, personal world where humor becomes the ultimate tonic (Williams had other half-siblings who also grew up in different homes). One of the great aspects of Williams’s roots explored here is his mother, Laurie, who was obviously the genetic fountain of his natural, energized brand of humor. In one great clip Williams and Laurie are being interviewed and everyone, including Williams himself, can’t help but be taken aback by her zainy antics. There is a soft, but sad tenderness as the two chuckle together about Williams’s father not being too keen on practical jokes. Valerie Velardi, Williams’s first wife, also appears and shares about their early years together, admitting that it was a strain on their marriage to reach for success, while dealing with him never being home (and indulging in the women fame brought along). Williams’s son Zak Williams, opens up about having a father who was both famous and childlike, bringing more humor than sternness to the house.

But “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” never gets too personal, it merely skirts the edges of the artist’s private world. Where the documentary gets more insightful is in exploring the details of Williams as a comedian and actor. Letterman recalls their days as young up and comers at L.A. joints like the Laugh Factory. Billy Crystal and Steve Martin contribute their own experiences with Williams, and the astonishment at how the man explored his mind through rapid-fire performances that could traverse a million different personalities onstage. Once in a while there are moments of juicy, gossipy anecdotes, like Williams avoiding Robert De Niro’s hotel room while partying so as to not interrupt a groupie session. But there are also kind words from comedians like Lewis Black, who while describing a joint USO tour, says Williams “never knew how to turn himself off.” Director Mark Romanek, who directed one of Williams’s best serious roles in “One Hour Photo,” describes a man who used comedy as a release and had to have his moments on set to goof off and do a little stand up, even while shooting such a dark and dreary film. One gets the impression that comedy always filled the void. When John Belushi died of an overdose in 1981, it was a true wakeup call for Williams, who had just spoken with Belushi before that fatal evening. He would kick the bottle, for a while at least. Humor could always provide the kick cocaine would enhance.

There are dark moments in “Come Inside My Mind.” Alcohol would grab Williams again in the 2000s, with a new stint at rehab to follow. But the documentary never truly dives deep, it seeks to remember the adrenaline rush of watching a Williams performance. This is one of its few flaws. Unlike the recent and excellent “Whitney,” about the life and death of Whitney Houston, the portrait in “Come Inside My Mind” tends to be the surface of the personality. At times the documentary hints at Williams’s deep insecurities and depression. A clip of the 2002 Critics’ Choice Awards, when Williams was snubbed for Jack Nicholson, has a new eeriness when he jokes, “thanks for nothing!” Great clips remind us of Williams’s memorable performances in “Awakenings,” “The Fisher King” and “Good Will Hunting.” But what truly made the man tick remains mysterious. Of his three wives only Velardi appears on camera. We also wish there was more of his actual voice, to give more depth to what the talking heads are saying.

For fans of Robin Williams this is a heartfelt tribute to what made him iconic. Moments of brilliant stand up and film acting are all here. Yet behind the maddened laugh there were also sad eyes, and “Come Inside My Mind” manages to convey a bit of the complexity of a fun but hurting soul. There may still be a definitive documentary about this artist in the future, but this one is still good, providing a panorama of a man who lived to bring a smile to us all.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” premieres July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.