originally aired as a two-parter last november on pbs as part of their american masters series, woody allen: a documentary, as the title suggests, attempts to cover allen’s life from childhood to 2011. it came at more or less the right time, since midnight in paris, allen‘s latest movie, turned out to be his biggest commercial success pre-adjusted for inflation (with inflation taken into account, annie hall and manhattan rightfully rank as his two biggest box office hits, and his only movies crossing the $100 million milestone).
director robert weide is no stranger to stand-up comedians. in addition to woody allen, he also directed documentaries on lenny bruce and mort sahl. his other works include quite a few episodes of larry david‘s curb your enthusiasm (who is perfectly cast as the woody surrogate in whatever works), how to lose friends & alienate people: the movie, and an upcoming documentary on kurt vonnegut.
part 1 runs just a bit short of two hours and depicts allen‘s life chronologically, following allen at his home, walking around in new york city, visiting his childhood home and key locations. there are also some rare footages of allen on stage as a stand-up and various tv appearances, none of which i have seen before. this part ends around the time annie hall became a huge success and went on to win four academy awards, all in major categories: best original screenplay, best actress, best director, and best picture. allen was nominated but lost to richard dreyfuss from the goodbye girl in the best actor category though he beat both george lucas and steven spielberg (for close encounters) as best director. i would like to thank the academy for picking annie hall over star wars episode iv. suck it lucas and fanboys.
and best of all, i doubt we will be seeing a digitally remastered or a 3D version of annie hall any time soon.
part 2 is only 85 minutes long and it covers allen‘s career since the 80s. this part is not as well structured. the footages and interviews seem jumbled and spotty. there’s also a lengthy opening showing footages that we are about to see.
considering its length, part 1 is a bit unevenly paced. it takes a good 45 minutes before we get to allen‘s feature film debut in what’s new pussycat. not that those parts aren’t interesting, especially since weide had more access to the usually reclusive allen, but it could have easily been condensed to half an hour tops. the most memorable scenes for me is when they revisit the movie theatres allen frequented during his youth, one of which is where he saw his first bergman film. one theatre is now an abandoned building while the other one is some dental/vision clinic.
but it’s smooth sailing once it gets to his films (take the money and run, bananas, everything you always wanted to know about sex, sleeper, love and death, annie hall, interiors). it would have been nice if they talk more about his new yorker pieces, his three classic books, his plays, and his roles in the front, play it again, sam, and casino royale from that period. the hilarious what’s up, tiger lily? is also not mentioned, which predates mystery science theatre by about two decades.
though the first half of part 1 is leisurely paced, i’m overall satisfied in the way part 1 covers allen‘s first decade career. unfortunately, i can’t say the same for the shorter part 2. as mentioned, part 2 is only 85 minutes long and it has more than three decades to cover, and it’s not chronological as part 1, and some of his best works are from this period.
part 2 feels more like a snapshot of allen‘s films in the last three decades, focusing more on his 80s outputs. as much as i appreciate part 2 in skipping over his pact with
the devil dreamworks period (small time crooks, curse of the jade scorpion, hollywood ending, anything else), it leaves me wanting more on husbands and wives, manhattan murder mystery, everyone says i love you and deconstructing harry, or as a hired actor in godard’s king lear, scenes from a mall (what were they thinking?), the impostors, the 90s tv revivals of don’t drink the water and the sunshine boys, antz, company man, picking up the pieces, and his 9/11 oscar tribute. there’s also no mention of new york stories, an anthology film with francis ford coppola and martin scorsese. any of these would have been more interesting than the time spent on the overrated match point and the making of you will meet a tall dark stranger.
in addition to unprecedented access, woody allen: a documentary interviewed most allen alumni both in front of and behind the camera. it also doesn’t kid gloves the scandal, though no sane person would expect mia farrow talking head segments. perhaps it’s a no win endeavor in trying to sum up an iconic artist in less than three and a half hours (i can see it as a five part hourlong series) whose career spans more than four decades, it is nevertheless a must see for woody allen fans, especially since allen, like most auteurs, doesn’t do commentaries or even supply deleted scenes. as a (former) hardcore allen fanatic who owns stig bjorkman’s woody allen on woody allen, the eric lax books on allen, and pretty much any books by and about allen, there’s not much in the way of new information. on the other hand, i can’t think of that many 3+ hour documentaries that can i can watch in one seating and be able to keep me interested throughout. it’s comprehensive enough for the curious but not quite detailed enough for us fanboys. it’s also fun to pick out the recurring themes and aspects from his real life and figure out the inspirations for specific films and the films they inspired.
p.s. i was lucky enough to be able to watch the whole thing for free streaming on the pbs website. looks like it’s been taken down, probably because the dvd came out today. there are also two other documentaries: one by time magazine critic richard schickel titled woody allen: a life in film, and oscar winner barbara kopple (harlon county u.s.a., american dream, american masters: gregory peck, havoc, shut up & sing)’s wild man blues, which is a more restricted view on allen‘s personal life and life as a jazz musician just before the millennium.