• Film

Docs: Engaging “You Can Call Me Bill” Showcases William Shatner’s Curiosity, Passions

William Shatner has existed as a larger-than-life legend for so long that it’s difficult to imagine a time before he stood astride pop culture, tossing off endearingly self-aggrandizing pronouncements.

The 92-year-old actor, who of course found fame as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek, parlayed the iconic status of that role into no small amount of other supporting work, on screens both big and small. To generations who either didn’t know or care about his godhead status in science-fiction circles, it was mostly his colorful personality that made him such an ideal celebrity — the perfect, off-kilter fit for everything from a short-lived stint as a talk show host (Shatner’s Raw Nerve) to a Priceline pitchman and more.

For that reason, it’s equally hard to fathom that Shatner hasn’t already been the focal point of a feature-length documentary. That box is now checked with the engaging and thought-provoking You Can Call Me Bill, which enjoyed its world premiere in the Documentary Spotlight section at the 2023 SXSW Festival.


Rejecting the expected construction and tone of so many glad-handing biographical snapshots, director Alexandre O. Philippe opts instead to delve into the passions, hopes and concerns of his subject, and leans heartily on Shatner’s prowess as a natural-born storyteller. The result is a deeply ruminative work of sizable introspection which honors Shatner’s philosophical musings and boundless curiosity, and thus feels like an apt summation of his life and legacy.

You Can Call Me Bill unfolds in five labeled chapters, but it immediately announces the originality of its intentions and vibe in a five-minute “prologue” in which Shatner holds forth about the death of his beloved dog, the only pet from his childhood, when he was nine or ten years old. Using his recollections of the intensity of this grief as a leaping-off point to rhapsodize about a speculative latticework in the universe, and “everything living speaking to you,” Shatner builds to a thundering crescendo: “We’re living in a miracle!”

The rest of the film offers up further awestruck pontifications, many similarly rooted in their appreciation of the natural world. You Can Call Me Bill makes use of a few scant dramatizations, but it doesn’t feature other interviewees. It’s structured for the most part as a thematically grouped audiovisual monologue, with Philippe’s offscreen interview proddings providing a very loose sense of shape and form.

This includes some family details and a sense of Shatner’s early life in Montreal. He recalls the joy of being in a play as a six-year-old and, much later, the feeling of being bullied and not understood by teenage peers because a joint love of both theater and sports marked him an outcast in each of those respective cliques. But there’s nothing that would really qualify as a dynamic “origin story,” catapulting our subject upward and onward.

Anyone familiar with any of the rest of Philippe’s filmography (a heavy rotation of movies about films and filmmakers that includes 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower SceneMemory: The Origins of Alien; Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The ExorcistLynch/Oz) might have a sense of the delight of tangential illumination that might await viewers. Clips from Shatner’s many screen performances are interspersed throughout, but more in the manner of creating an emotional through-line than with any sort of chronological fidelity.

Footage from Shatner’s April 29, 2022 “So Fragile, So Blue” performance with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (one of several times he “became one with an audience,” he says) makes several appearances, with Philippe and editor Dave Krahling doing a good job of showcasing the shared amusement and emotional impact of the staging.

Other portions of the movie find Shatner discussing acting heroes Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando, unpacking the unusual speech mannerisms of his The Practice and Boston Legal character Denny Crane, and recalling the high-wire act of opening AFI’s 2005 tribute to Star Wars impresario George Lucas. Among his Star Trek reminiscences, Shatner’s nuanced reflection of regret over a death scene, and not quite cracking the wonderment of a line reading, stands out as especially notable and touching.

Again, because You Can Call Me Bill isn’t in any way a conventional biographical documentary, there are considerable gaps and blind spots — both professional and personal. The movie doesn’t touch at all upon TekWar or any of Shatner’s other writing, be it in the form of his Star Trek novels or any of his memoirs. It also makes no mention of his sincerely excellent 2004 musical collaboration with Ben Folds, Has Been (though the concluding track “Real,” a duet with Brad Paisley, does play over the end credits). Likewise, while his grandchildren are mentioned in passing, none of Shatner’s children or four marriages (including the tragic 1999 death of third wife Nerine Kidd) are discussed at all.

The absence of all of this information would seem, on the surface, to undercut or even condemn Philippe’s documentary. On the contrary, once one accepts very early on what type of movie this is going to be, a deeper appreciation for Shatner — despite his many foibles, and regardless of one’s individual Star Trek fandom — blossoms.

If there are two narrative pillars, they would be the movie’s return to Shatner’s pride over nurturing a sense of innate (and, yes, even childlike) curiosity (“Life’s exigencies prey on you, and that curiosity is usually beaten out of you,” he says), as well the consistency of what he deems an existential sense of loneliness, and trying to find attachment in life.

As it winds to its conclusion, You Can Call Me Bill gathers momentum and poignance in recounting its subject’s 2021 Blue Origin trip into space. Shatner’s eloquence over his own emotional reaction is moving, as is the revelation and explanation of his plans for his ashes after his death.

Whenever he departs, Shatner will leave a complicated legacy — and perhaps one only two-dimensional to those who don’t fully appreciate his talents as an actor. Philippe’s eye-opening documentary does a good job, however, of imparting some magical lessons from a life lived with few filters.