For all the films (43 in roughly as many years), the influence on other directors (everyone from Christopher Guest to the Farrelly Brothers) and the scandal (more on that later), surprisingly little is known about what makes Woody Allen tick. Woody Allen: A Documentary rectifies that across nearly two hours of archive footage, testimony from peers and collaborators, and interviews with the man himself.
Directed by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Robert Weide (who, interestingly enough, launched his career with a documentary about one of Allen’s major influences, the Marx Brothers), Woody Allen: A Documentary is a treat for fans of Allen’s schtick, and the non-converted should find it illuminating.
Edited from a longer television cut which screened in the US last year, Weide’s film has a lot of ground to cover. Before averaging a directorial credit a year for much of the past six decades, Allen was writing jokes for the likes of Ed Sullivan and Sid Caesar as a teenager in the 1950s.
Next came stand-up comedy, then theatre work and screenwriting-for-hire, until, in 1969, he made Take the Money and Run, the first of the string of pictures that critics like to call his ‘early, funny ones’.
Weide covers all of this, with hilarious clips from the likes of Bananas, Sleeper and Annie Hall, as well as examining what motivates Allen artistically. Fascinatingly for someone who specialises in offbeat romantic comedies, Allen’s entire oeuvre seems to have been a meditation on the meaning of life. ‘My relationship with death remains the same,’ he says at one point. ‘I’m strongly against it.’
Elsewhere, Weide lures Allen, now 76, to some of his childhood haunts around Brooklyn, and films the notoriously personal star in his home, where he presides over an antique German typewriter upon which he has written every gag and script since he bought it more than 60 years ago.
Allen’s existence seems simple and normal. It is not at all sinister, as the 1990s furore involving the director’s romance with the adopted adult daughter of his then-wife, Mia Farrow, briefly painted it.
Wisely, this sordid episode is touched upon, and Allen comes out of it relatively unscathed. Certainly, he’s still married to Soon-Yi Previn, and the A-list actors are still queuing up to work with him (Scarlett Johansson, Sean Penn, Chris Rock and Owen Wilson are among the many interviewed here).
Also in the documentary, Weide visits the set of 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (to give you an idea of Allen’s prolificacy, he has shot another two movies since), and talks to some of the pivotal figures in Allen’s career, including his sister/producer Letty Aronson and his management team Jack Rollins and Charles H Joffe, who has since passed away.
Allen’s is an inspiring life, from average, lower-middle-class New Yorker to revered comedy giant, with little in the way of compromise, and Weide captures this. Working through Allen’s filmography chronologically, as much attention is given to the later, less admired (but, in this reviewer’s opinion, no less worthwhile) entries as to the classics. It all leaves you itching to see To Rome with Love, his latest, just released in the US.
Of course, Woody Allen: A Documentary isn’t the first such effort about Allen. 1997’s Wild Man Blues focused on the filmmaker’s love of jazz, following him on a tour of Europe, and there have been a number of telefilms. But Weide’s work is the most enjoyable and surely definitive. Indeed, if there’s anything wrong with it, it’s the title. It should be called Woody Allen: The Documentary.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is showing at QFT, Belfast, from July 15 to 19.