When word first got out that Robert B. Weide was working on an extended documentary portrait of Woody Allen, those familiar with his work couldn't help but grin and all but rub their hands in anticipation. Though best known as a frequent director of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weide's first screen credits were for co-writing the wonderful (and inexplicably hard-to-find) Joe Adamson documentaries The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell and W.C. Fields: Straight Up; he'd also helmed the Oscar-nominated Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. This, clearly, is a guy who could get to the heart of Allen's comic genius.
Other documentarians had tried. Richard Schickel's 2002 TCM film Woody Allen: A Life in Film wasn't so much unsuccessful as abbreviated; at a mere 90 minutes, it barely felt as though Schickel had scratched the prolific filmmaker's surface. Granted unprecedented access to Allen both in interviews and at work, and given two nights on PBS to stretch over (Martin Scorsese appears, thankfully, to have made the two-part doc de rigueur for pop culture icons), Weide does his subject justice--though, even at that length, he has to leave a lot of stuff out.
After a terrific opening sequence, split-screening rave testimonials from admirers and collaborators with Allen's contention that much of what's been written and said about him is "completely mythological... some of it's been true, of course," Woody Allen: A Documentary goes back to Allen's early days, coming of age in Brooklyn. Weide (wisely) doesn't follow a strict chronology (he returns to Allen's youth periodically through the film), but he spends some time on young Allan Konigsberg's formative years. For illustration, he not only uses an older Allen's evocative stroll through the old neighborhood, pointing out his homes and the movie palaces where he spent his youth, but clips from Allen's films; luckily for Weide, this is a filmmaker prone to something resembling autobiography, so snippets of Annie Hall and Radio Days come in handy.
However, the film's best section is probably the subsequent one, covering Allen's early days as a gag writer and comic performer. Via great clips (you haven't lived until you've seen Allen's song-and-dance number on an early TV special), vivid interviews, and those multi-layered moving stills that all the documentary editors like so much, Weide masterfully conjures up that scene and that time; the portrait of Greenwich Village-style hipster comedy, circa early 1960s, is marvelous.
The film's other accomplishments are equally impressive, and tougher to pull off. Some merely speak to Weide's skil as an interviewer; in one particularly enlightening section, he gets an uproarious confession out of Allen about how he first saw an Ingmar Bergman film (he'd heard there was a naked actress in it--and "it was a fabulous movie, apart from the nudity"), before exploring the notion that Allen's unique genius may very well lie in the fact that he was equally influenced by Bergman, Bob Hope, and Groucho Marx. If ever a more succinct explanation of Allen's appeal has been offered, I've not heard it.
Often the treats are just matters of inside information; Allen has so long sworn off director commentaries or behind-the-scenes nuggets that it's fascinating to find out, for example, that the therapy split-screen in Annie Hall was accomplished with an actual split set, or why Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis decided to shoot Manhattan in black and white. But Weide also manages to expertly walk us through the shifts in Allen's style: the transition to a more human and personal voice in Annie Hall, his struggle with Interiors to make the kind of serious film he thought was more valuable. Of that film's less-than-enthusiastic response, Allen shrugs, "I get more pleasure at failing at a project that I'm enthused over."
There is something of an imbalance in the two parts. Though the first ends with frequent biographer Eric Lax insisting that "arguably, his best work is yet to come," that first, 111-minute film ends with 1980's Stardust Memories; thus, the second, 84-minute section covers 30 years of Allen's films, compared to roughly ten years in the first half. As a result, there's a feeling of a filmmaker in a hurry in part two; it's kind of like that last part of The Beatles Anthology, when the editors seemed to have suddenly realized that at the rate they were going, the film would never end, and thus crammed the group's last three years into the final, 90-minute segment. It's not just a matter of skipping over the lesser '00s efforts like Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Small Time Crooks--great films from the '80s, like Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, get barely five minutes, little more than a cursory mention, which is a shame.
That said, the second part is valuable as a look at the process, themes, and overall body of work, rather than a survey of specific films. It gives a real sense of how an Allen movie is made, which is fascinating. He and his actors talk about their limited interaction, both during the casting process and while on-set: the cloak-and-dagger script previewing procedure is wittily illustrated with spy movie footage, while everyone from Sean Penn to Larry David to Scarlet Johansson delights in reciting (from memory) the filmmaker's personalized cover notes to them. (Weide shows the notes, which of course everyone has kept.)
And, enchantingly, we get a peek at the director at work. There are excellent archival clips, of Allen on the set and in the editing room in the early '70s, but Weide also managed to shoot telling footage of him at work with his actors on the set of 2010's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. But Woody Allen: A Documentary isn't just about access; Weide and his editors move nimbly through Allen's 40-plus films and 50 years in show business, and find some clever tricks for telling his story. They even get a good old-fashioned happy ending, with the rave reviews and box-office success of Midnight in Paris providing a fine conclusion to this jaunty, smashing documentary portrait.
Video & Audio:
The anamorphic widescreen video presentation is quite pleasing, with crisp new interviews and on-set footage complimented by clean transfers of Allen's films and archival materials (all presented, thankfully, in their original aspect ratios). There are two audio options: a 2.0 stereo track and 5.1 surround mix, the latter placing movie dialogue in the front surrounds and interviews in the center (a choice that works, mostly). There's not much use for the rear channels (I heard some light applause during Tall Dark Stranger's Cannes premiere, for example), so the flatter 2.0 track is perfectly adequate as well.
The five entertaining Deleted Scenes (17:42 total) are a combination of edited segments (more of Allen visiting the old neighborhood, him and Lasser talking about him getting into the New Yorker), outtakes (a disbelieving neighbor being told Allen used to live there), and interview segments (Hemingway talking about bringing Allen to Idaho, a funny series of rapid-fire questions for Woody, and more of Woody's interview with his mom). Also included is an Interview with Director Robert Weide (6:09), where he talks about the protracted process of getting Allen to agree to the film, and his lifelong love of the filmmaker's work.
"It's not rocket science," Woody Allen says of what he does. "It's just storytelling, and you tell it. There's no big deal to it." Some might presume this to be false modesty, and it is hard to believe this brilliant director when he says "I've made about 40 films in my life, and so few of them turned out to be worth anything..." But it also seems feasible that the neurotic "Woody" character we came to know in those films manifests itself off-screen in a candid craftsman who's patently disinterested in hagiography. By the end of Woody Allen: A Documentary, it doesn't feel like an act; this seems to be the real guy, which may be part of the reason his closing line is so utterly perfect.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.