TV Review: American Masters, “Woody Allen: A Documentary”

Written by Television, TV Reviews

Whether or not you’re a fan of Woody Allen this American Masters documentary is an exemplary study of the artist.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Woody Allen, the writer, comedian, and auteur, this American Masters documentary is an exemplary study of the artist, from his humble beginnings growing up in Brooklyn, to his continuing career as one of the most acclaimed filmmakers living. Writer/Director Robert Weide was given unparalleled access to Allen, a notoriously private man, and worked for two years on this film. Even at a running time that lasts over three hours (it airs Sunday and Monday Night on PBS, check local listings), Woody Allen: A Documentary is so informative and entertaining that it feels as if could have lasted another hour or two. In addition to lengthy interviews with Allen, in which nearly every subject (including his scandals) is broached, Wilde also sat down with many of the actors who have starred for him over the course of forty years, including Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, John Cusack, Diane Weist, Larry David, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz. Also interviewed are his sister, his producers, his writing partners, films critics/historians, plus entertainment pals Dick Cavett and Martin Scorsese.

Though not told completely in chronological order, the documentary does follow the trajectory of Allen’s life. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and at an early age found that he had a gift for making people laugh. When just a teenager, he began selling jokes to newspaper columnists. Barely out of his teens, Allen began working in television, most notably with Sid Ceasar, working alongside such luminaries as Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks.  From there, he moved into a career as a stand up comic. This was all part of a plan to get him into movies.

His rise to the top on the stand up circuit, as well as successful appearances on talk shows, eventually landed him in Hollywood. After watching producers rewrite his script for What’s New Pussy Cat? Allen decided that he would not work on another film unless he was granted complete creative control When What’s New Pussy Cat? became a hit and studios were clamoring to work with Allen, his demands were met. On his very first film as a director, Allen had complete creative control and has never looked back.

From that first film, Take the Money and Run, Allen began developing a style of comedy that had crossover appeal with audiences and critics. Throughout the early 70’s, Allen honed his comedic filmmaking skills. However, it wasn’t until he stepped away from slapstick and began exploring relationships between men and women that he transitioned into one of the world’s most respected filmmakers. In 1977, he released Annie Hall, a film that would go onto win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and make stars out of Allen and Diane Keaton.

Woody Allen A Documentary follows Allen’s career  with humor, insight and smooth transitions that keep the viewer constantly involved. The editing on this film, which pieces together not only hundreds of interviews, but archival footage, film clips and photographs, really keeps the film breathing and alive. While many documentaries can have a slow, parlor room feel to them, A Documentary is alive.

The first episode concludes as Allen enters the 1980’s and experiences his first critical failure, Stardust Memories. Many critics write off Allen as having lost touch and wondered if his talent had dried up.  But, as one of the interviewees states, Allen’s best work was yet to come.

In the early 80’s, Allen meets his muse, Mia Farrow. They made a series of movies together that not only revealed new facets of the Allen’s talent, but also allow the world to see Farrow in a new light. Throughout that decade, Allen never stops working, releasing such important films like Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Then, during the onset of the 90’s, Allen fell in love with Farrow’s adopted daughter. As the two were still filming the devastating, Husbands and Wives, their relationship exploded.

Wilde addresses this scandal without pulling any punches. All of the people interviewed are candid about their own feelings. Allen does not come off as a great human being during this section of the film; he comes off as a bit out of touch and even aloof. Credit the man for discussing what must have been a terrible and strange personal period for him. However, as more than one interviewee says (in a funny montage of clips), Allen is able to compartmentalize his feelings, which may be one of the reasons he’s been able to release one movie a year for nearly forty years.

Weide, best known for his work on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, has crafted a fine movie that does everything you hope from a documentary. Wood Allen A Documentary entertains, informs and, in the end, makes you want to go out and learn more about the subject. In this case, I’ve already stacked up my Netflix queue with Allen films I’ve never seen. I wager to say that after watching this film, you will, too.

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