Matt Willis: Fighting Addiction review – the Busted bassist is frequently in tears
Matt Willis: Fighting Addiction begins with the Busted bass players’ wife, Emma. In their big, light-filled house in Hertfordshire, the TV presenter opens a drawer that tends to remain shut. She retrieves a diary she hasn’t read since she wrote it in the run-up to their wedding in 2008. It contains, she says with a tight smile, “notes of what I knew he had consumed”. She reads a couple of entries: “bottle of champagne … couple of wines … couple of wines … another bottle of champagne.” The words “and more” refer to drugs. There are entries for every single day. “I used to drive around looking for him,” she says, welling up.
It sets the scene for this intimate, often tearful exploration of Willis’s decades-long battle with drug and alcohol addiction. A story of the ricochet back and forth between relapse and sobriety that focuses as much on Emma’s pain as Willis’s. Celebrity addiction is a well-trodden subject, but less explored is its devastating impact on families. Willis’s film, in which he sets off around the country and into his own past to try to find out why he is as he is, is in equal parts Emma’s film. His last relapse happened when the youngest of their three children was 10 months old. His first words to camera are about his wife: “I’ve hurt her so many times I don’t know where to begin.”
Let’s begin with the band, formed in 2002 by Willis, James Bourne and Charlie Simpson, who came on board last and was the first, three years later, to say he wanted out. In their brief time at the top, Busted were huge. Sold out arena tours, million-selling albums, or, as Willis put it then, “all I saw was boobs everywhere!” Grim. By the age of 18 he was signing a six-figure contract. By 22, he was an addict. He couldn’t get to midday without drinking and using. During a later relapse that “flabbergasted” Emma as it followed eight years of sobriety, Willis was taking six grams of cocaine a day. “It was not rock’n’roll,” he says. “It was really sad.” Today, he’s sober, “but I’m not recovered,” he says. “My head is fucked.”
Willis’s relapses happen when he’s on the road. What really scares him is how much he loves the lifestyle. Less is said about its enabling environment, which feels like an omission. When Simpson comes over for a cuppa they laugh about the night in Germany (which Willis barely remembers) when they drank “30 or 40” B52s and Simpson vomited in Willis’s suitcase. “I dragged it to the airport leaking puke out the bottom,” Willis recalls. Simpson says he wasn’t aware how bad things were. “We were kids,” Willis shrugs. Which would have been the ideal moment to bring up the music industry’s failure, time and time again, to fulfil its duty of care. But no.
Instead, Willis returns to his “messy” childhood, most of which he can’t remember. He goes to Molesey in Surrey, where he grew up, to meet his brother, Darren. Their parents divorced when he was three and Darren was five. A stepfather, with whom things got “heated”, came on the scene. Mostly, Willis wanted to be elsewhere – music was his escape. Later he breaks down – telling a consultant at the Tavistock that he “became a bit of a robot”. Even as a child, he was chasing oblivion. It started as a matter of survival. Back on a bench in the field where he used to smoke weed, drink and once fell out of a tree, wasted, (he can’t remember that, either), he and Darren talk for the first time about their childhood, and how Darren left when he was 13 to live with their dad. “I always felt guilty for leaving you there,” he says. “I always felt guilty for not going with you,” Willis replies.
He goes back to the first rehab facility he attended in Bournemouth. Three days after he left, he and Emma got married and he made it through the wedding sober. The two of them attend a Glasgow project supporting families of addicts. It’s the first time Emma has sought help, and though the stories recounted in a group session are heartbreaking, equally moving is her inability to articulate what she’s been through. “I didn’t know groups like this existed,” she says, breaking down.
Willis remains terrified of relapsing, so it seems fitting – and yes, worrying – that the documentary ends as he prepares to go back on a Busted reunion tour. His manager phones to get the band’s tour rider. For Simpson, it’s crisps, four bottles of red wine, two bottles of white wine and pale ale, which frankly made me worry about him, too. For Bourne, it’s Um Bongo and Dairy Milk Marvellous Creations. And for Willis, protein powder, MCT oil, nuts and berries. Emma is terrified as well. But she is also clear-eyed about what they’re wrestling with: “It’s part of who he is,” she says of Willis’s addiction. “And who he is is who I love.”
• None Matt Willis: Fighting Addiction aired on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.