(PBS) Woody Allen: A Documentary is probably the best look we're ever going to get into the extraordinary life of one of the greatest comic talents and most adventurous filmmakers of our time. The reason it's so good is that it doesn't just focus on the events of Allen's life, but also explores his philosophy of writing, his style of directing, and the psychological underpinnings that motivate his restless mind. The film is split into two parts, and totals out at 3 hours and 14 minutes – yet it never drags, and you're left wanting even more.
When Allen says, “We all know the same truth, and our lives consist of how we choose to distort it,” he's talking about the fact that we're all going to die – a fact that has disturbed and fascinated him since childhood. He also says, “I put a higher value on the tragic muse than the comic muse,” but admits that his true talents lie in humor: “Some people can draw a horse. I can write jokes.” It's unusual to hear a man celebrated as a comedic genius wish he was better at making people sad.
The film spends a brief opening segment on Allen's childhood. Taking the documentarians on a tour of the neighborhood where he grew up, Allen points to his family's former home and says, “It doesn't look like much, but it wasn't.” He also tells stories of run-ins with violent bullies at school, and remarks, “I hated school with a passion. To this day, when I think back on it, it was a curse.” His escape was going to the movies – a fact that will surprise no-one.
The film then tackles Allen's early career. He sent jokes to newspapers, and their publication got him a job as a television writer at the tender age of 19. What's remarkable about this phase is the way in which his agents seem to have pushed him into becoming a performer largely against his will. Because his natural shyness made performing painful for him, he began to play up the nervous aspects of his personality in order to make people laugh, leading to greater comfort in front of an audience. Clearly, his stage and film career would not have been what it was without prodding from these people who saw his potential as a comic actor.
If the documentary is anything, it's a crash course for aspiring filmmakers. It's packed with wisdom about how to approach the craft and how to keep yourself inspired once you've begun. “How can you get caught up in reviews or how the movie’s doing if you’re already onto your next movie?” says Owen Wilson, star of Allen's recent hit Midnight in Paris. “He’s not afraid to fail,” says Chris Rock. “You can tell he kinda approaches it like a baseball player: like, Okay, I’ll get 'em the next time.” Allen's advice on filmmaking is refreshingly simple: “It’s not rocket science. This is not quantum physics. If you’re the writer of the story, you know what you want the audience to see… it’s just storytelling, and you tell it. There’s no big deal to it.” Also: “Hire great people… get out of their way and shut up.”
The picture of Allen's personality painted by the film is of a humble, self-deprecating man who never quite feels like his efforts are good enough. Discussing one of his most critically successful films, 1979's Manhattan, he reveals that he offered to make his next film for free if the studio would shelve it. In an archival interview about an early film, he says, “It was a boring picture, as I recall.” The interviewer responds, “I rather enjoyed it.” Allen smiles and shoots back, “Yes, but you're mistaken.” We're also given interesting bits of trivia, such as the fact that Allen sent the script for his sci-fi farce Sleeper to Isaac Asimov for an evaluation of its scientific plausibility.
The documentary doesn't gloss over Allen's occasionally fraught personal life. It devotes a segment to his highly-publicized breakup with Mia Farrow and marriage to her adopted daughter Soon-Yi. Whatever you may think of Allen's conduct, he appears to have many friends and supporters who continue to vouch for his decency as a human being. One can never know the truth of a case like this, and the film seems well-aware of that fact, offering no judgment.
Woody Allen's view of life can probably be best summed up with a quote from his 1977 hit Annie Hall: “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable… When you go through life, you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because you’re very lucky to be miserable.” With insight provided by his friends, fans, critics, and colleagues, Woody Allen: A Documentary is an engaging in-depth look at a man never satisfied and always driven to try something new.
For Fans Of: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night; Steve Martin: Seriously Funny; Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age of Comedy
Why We Like It: great advice for filmmakers, a revealing look at the real Woody Allen, examines the building blocks of his career in detail