“Two martinis please, very dry.”
“How’d you know what I drank?”
“Oh, you want one too? Three.”
That classic exchange from Bullets over Broadway is the joke used to break the tension after discussing Woody Allen’s notorious personal life. It signaled the moment Woody Allen: A Documentary was returning to the lighter, more palatable aspects of Allen’s impressive and prolific career after obligingly covering the scandal that saw him crucified in the press for what they interpreted as a father getting involved with his stepdaughter (despite neither of those labels being accurate). It’s really the only darker moment in the film (and thus the man’s career) and it is unfortunate that so many people are more familiar with him for an incident in his personal life than his many wonderful films.
For long-time Woody Allen fans, though, this documentary has everything you would want in a biography. Starting from childhood, the film follows Allen’s life and body of work all the way up to last year’s superb Midnight in Paris. With around 40 films under his belt, the film has no shortage of clips to help illustrate Allen’s style, sense of humor, outlook on life, and overall impact on the film, art and comedy community. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying his influence.
The film gives the impression of an awkward child who didn’t fit in very well, but always had a wonderful sense of humour. By the age of 17, Allen was already earning more than his parents by writing jokes for newspapers and other comedians. A stand-up career followed and soon he was a regular guest on many talk shows. We’re told that in the early days before his film successes, Allen never turned down an offer, and when the documentary shows footage of him boxing a kangaroo on live TV, you can’t help but feel there’s no hyperbole in that statement.
Once we get to his film career, things get a bit familiar for fanatics, as all the fantastic under-seen footage of his early days becomes clips of the films we know and love. This isn’t a greatest-hits collection, however, and it is especially impressive how much time is devoted to Stardust Memories, a massive commercial and critical failure that is still reviled to this day for its grotesque portrayal of sycophantic fans of a comedic director trying to go serious (played by Allen, naturally).
There are still plenty of wonderful behind-the-scene stories, though, and interviews with the likes of Larry David, John Cusack, Diane Keaton, Letty Aronson (Allen’s sister), Josh Brolin, Mariel Hemmingway, Leonard Maltin, Jack Rollins and many more help give us a feel for the man as seen by those closest to him. Not that Allen himself is absent from questioning – he appears extensively throughout the film and even offers a tour of the area he grew up. It’s refreshing to see how he views his long career and he gives the distinct impression there’s still plenty more to come.
For those unfamiliar with the man, Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary will be an eye-opening introduction to the director and his films. For the rest of us, it’s a glorious celebration of a comedic powerhouse. I left the cinema with a grin on my face and the desire to rush out and re-watch Bananas and Match Point and Annie Hall and Deconstructing Harry and Manhattan and Mighty Aphrodite and Zelig and…