Even those who aren’t major fans can’t deny that Woody Allen is a person of enormous significance within cinema – indeed he’s perhaps the most noteworthy individual within American cinema in the last 40 years. For a period in the 1980s it seemed obligatory that every new Allen film would be widely rated as amongst the best films of the year. While the Academy Awards aren’t always a reliable barometer of class, that he has acquired an astonishing 15 Oscar nominations for screenplays he’s written or co-written (for 3 wins) is a true testament to his quality.
Therefore, a three-hour documentary examining Allen’s life and career is essential viewing for any fan of cinema, let alone fans of Allen. Especially so when Allen is prepared to be substantially interviewed in Robert B. Weide’s documentary, simply titled ‘Woody Allen: A Documentary’, released on TV late last year.
This documentary is effectively in two segments. The first segments covers Allen’s life chronologically from childhood to 1980’s ‘Stardust Memories’, which Weide obviously perceived as a crucial decisive period in Allen’s career. The second segment is a more pottered account of Allen’s his post-1980 work and his overall impact on cinema.
Technically, this documentary is impressively done. The clips chosen to show Allen’s career and films are judiciously and intelligently inserted and Weide is prepared to take some risks unusual in a documentary like when a series of talking heads are shown saying the same phrase in rapid succession to underline a point. Even at three hours there’s barely a dull and stagnant moment.
Of course the main reason the documentary is entertaining is the scope and substance of Allen’s career. The segment I found the most interesting was Allen’s stand-up career and rise to fame and acclaim in the 1960s as he succeeded despite himself. Deeply reluctant to pursue stand-up when he was already a successful comic writer, he struggles for a while as his distinctly uncomfortable persona mitigates against his talent. But he persists (and is pushed by perceptive managers) and becomes one of the defining stand-up acts of his era. From the clips that are shown he always looks awkward during his routine and paradoxically, perhaps that was the secret of his success. Perhaps audiences of the 1960s were tired of the traditionally slick and manufactured comics and found Allen’s style genuine and appealing, especially as it fitted in with his self-depreciating style of comedy. And of course, it was also because he was an exceptionally gifted comic.
Even more interesting from this era is how his management pushed him into the public eye in the 1960s so that he wasn’t just a noted stand-up comic, but a mainstream American celebrity. We see footage of him singing in a broadway style musical number (and his singing is indeed dire) and even participating in a boxing match with a kangaroo! While some of this must’ve been galling for him to participate in, it helped give him the celebrity credit that film producers began to see him as a viable talent. And the rest is history.
The section covering his film career is also constantly interesting. While most of it was familiar to me, there were some new revelations, like how the scene in ‘Annie Hall’ where Allen and Diane Keaton’s characters are both shown talking in therapy at the same time in what appeared to be a split screen segment, were both filmed at the same time.
Allen himself is interviewed extensively throughout the documentary, with significant excerpts from earlier interviews. Curiously enough considering he’s the whole basis of the documentary, when Allen is interviewed it’s probably the least interesting part of the doco. This is because Allen’s patented self-deprecating, self-loathsome persona is rather tiresome to hear in this format, especially when his default reaction to any of his work is to belittle it. It almost feels like an easy evasion of a more penetrating self-analysis of his own work.
More interesting from Allen is when we see his process of working which is a mixture of old-fashioned and eccentric. He uses no electronic technology, and still relies on hand-written notes and old-fashioned typewriters. His method of adding in material on his typewritten notes is certainly idiosyncratic and amusing. When we see his hand-written ideas they are splashed on the page in such a random and eccentric fashion that it would be difficult for anyone but himself to transcribe them to legible form. This form of ideas feels more in the spirit of his early anarchic comedies as opposed to the usually tidy films he’s made in recent decades.
Weide has organised an array of talking heads for the doc ranging from actors who’ve worked with Allen such as Mira Sorvino, ex-wife and actress Louise Lasser and film critic Leonard Maltin. They are generally interesting and well chosen, although the predictable absence of Mia Farrow makes itself felt. Probably the most interesting comment came from film writer F. X. Feeney who says that ‘Hannah And Her Sisters’ was the film Allen’s fans were expecting after ‘Manhattan’, not ‘Stardust Memories’ which seemed to disillusion them, especially with what they took to be Allen’s criticism of his fanbase.
If there’s a weakness in this documentary (perhaps inevitable due to Allen’s participation), is that the tone towards Allen is so reverential, including from all of the talking heads, that it borders on the gushing. Barely a mildly critical word is mentioned of Allen’s work or Allen himself during the documentary. His downturn in in quality and popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s is briefly alluded to, but seemingly only as a precursor to mention his triumphant return to form with 2005’s ‘Match Point’.
Also referenced is Allen’s ugly custody battle with Mia Farrow in the 1990s after she found out about his romantic relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. But again this is treated rather superficially with the focus being on how excessive the media coverage was of it (hardly an earth-shattering insight) and how Allen managed to carry on so strongly through it. Considering Farrow’s absence, this section feels rather pointless and probably could’ve been excised from the documentary altogether.
Despite some weaknesses and a rather self-serving aspect to it, ‘Woody Allen: A Documentary’ is a fine, entertaining work. For those who know nothing about Allen, it’s an excellent starting point to learn about him and his significance. Of course those who are devoted fans of Allen won’t need a second invitation to watch it.