Woody Allen: A Documentary review

The long and respected career of Woody Allen is charted in this feature-length documentary from the director of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Here’s Michael’s review…

With as definitive-sounding a title as Woody Allen: A Documentary, this new bio-doc from Curb Your Enthusiasm director (and Oscar-nominated documentarian) Robert Weide has one hell of a task on its hands. After all, Woody is a real all-rounder, having achieved success as a stand-up comedian, comedy writer and playwright before finding success as an actor-director over 40 years ago.

43 films later, he’s back on a high with the success of Midnight In Paris, which has grossed more than any other Allen flick to date, and has garnered the bespectacled auteur yet another Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (his third, and fourth overall). With that in mind, there’s no better time for an all-inclusive documentary. And, with its mixture of classic clips, new interviews with a comprehensive list of collaborators and critics, and unprecedented access to the man himself, Weide’s film does a great job of summing up Allen’s career, and providing a compelling glimpse at the films that have built his reputation.

The exclusive footage with Allen, in particular, is an absolute treat, with the director’s famously self-effacing modesty, and outright grumpiness, undercutting much of the sense of occasion that comes with such a documentary. “Writing,” he says at the opening, “is the great life. Then reality sets in.” Over the course of the film, Weide takes the viewer into Allen’s home, and takes the director out of his comfort zone. This conjures up some moments of true insight, such as when Allen opens up a bedside drawer, and reveals a messy clump of paper scraps, each containing different ideas for movie scripts, or when he takes the camera crew on a tour of his childhood home of Brooklyn, wryly commenting, “It doesn’t look like much, but it wasn’t.”

Unfortunately, the film, as we see it in this limited UK theatrical run, is a cut down edit of an American Masters television two-parter. In its transatlantic transit, over an hour of material has been cut, which only accentuates the film’s lopsided structure.

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As it is, the film has an almost perfect opening hour, charting Allen’s rise to prominence. Much time is given over to his youth, when he found success as a writer for various comedians, earning more than his parents while still a teenager. Likewise, we see the moulding of the Woody Allen persona, as he found his own voice both as a writer and on stage through the shepherding of his agents, Jack Rollins and Charles H Joffe.

Contrary to popular belief, Allen did not appear fully formed, but his style, confidence and profile were built through years of nightclub performances, talk show appearances, and outright selling out in cheesy television specials (archive footage shows the young comedian boxing a kangaroo, and singing a duet with a dog). It wasn’t until much later, after years of grooming and canny decision-making, that Allen was able to make films on his own terms.

However, once the film hits the giddy heights of Annie Hall, capping off Allen’s development from nutty comedy to Oscar-winning maturity, the documentary quickly loses its backbone, flip-flopping between films almost arbitrarily, using them to support certain narrative or thematic points. Husbands And Wives, one of Allen’s last great films, is discussed purely in relation to the breakdown of the director’s long-term relationship with Mia Farrow. Likewise, the late classic Bullets Over Broadway is used as a launchpad for discussing Allen’s knack for ushering actors towards Oscar glory, and so the film can hop, skip and jump over the filmmaker’s fallow period in the 90s and early 2000s, in favour of rather too much time spent chatting with the likes of Sean Penn, or hanging out with Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts on the set of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

Of course, this is nitpicking, as the Tall Dark Stranger footage illustrates Allen’s uniquely hands-off approach to directing, but even as the film starts to accept its subject’s faults, it becomes defensive, and the eventual ‘comeback’ of Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and, finally, Midnight In Paris, becomes almost too easy a turnaround.

All documentaries, as do all fictional films, require an arc, and so Weide needs to end on a satisfactory high. However, there’s the feeling that, as the film goes on, the structure is getting the better of the insight. After fascinating interviews with Diane Keaton, Dick Cavett and cinematographer Gordon Willis (whose behind-the-scenes anecdote, about staging the split-screen therapy scene in Annie Hall on an elaborate set, may be the film’s most valuable trivia tidbit), there is nothing similar for the Mia Farrow years or beyond.

Indeed, in this regard the shorter cut sadly misses some of the longer version’s detail, including the fact that Michael Keaton was originally cast as adventurer Tom Baxter in The Purple Rose Of Cairo, before Jeff Daniels stepped into the role. But in general there is a lack of screen-time for mid-period Woody notables, with the reclusive Julie Kavner only popping up at one point, and the likes of Judy Davis, Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston being nowhere to be seen.

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That said, this will only mildly irritate those that come to the film with their own expectations – the kind of geeks who have seen every Allen film (and, surprise, I’m one of them). For those types, there’s bound to be a DVD release of the full cut down the line. But for the newcomers, the curious and those willing to find out more about Woody, Weide tells a good tale.

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3 out of 5