There is no better way to begin a documentary about the iconic Woody Allen then with the kind of scenes you’ve seen before in one of his forty-plus films. There are the shots of New York and music- all that jazz. But it’s also not long before the neurotic schtick is revealed with Allen saying that when you write in your room, you assume it’s all great. While he believes he’s beginning something that’ll be as good as Citizen Kane, often he feels like having to prostitute himself just to save things.
Make no mistake; Allen – born Allan Stewart Konigsberg – is extremely self-deprecating. The comedian, director, writer, clarinettist, actor/performer and auteur for a generation, lives and breathes modesty. He says he is yet to make that rather elusive “great” film (despite being responsible for Annie Hall, Manhattan, Match Point and Midnight In Paris, among others). And one of the film’s best scenes is when we see Allen with an old, clapped-out typewriter. He bought it for $40 at age 16 – and was told it would outlive him – and it’s where he has written virtually everything he’s ever produced. To Allen cut and paste is performed literally with yellow pages chopped and stapled together.
Robert Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm) was allowed unprecedented access to the notoriously private Allen in making this doco. The living legend is renowned for not offering DVD extras and for granting few interviews. This was originally produced as a 190-minute plus special for American TV while the Australian release sees a cut down theatrical version. At just under two hours and whether by time constraint or design, there are some elements of his life that are obviously glossed over.
Allen was an active child who grew up in Brooklyn, America and was influenced by the numerous movie houses – one within every two blocks – that peppered his surroundings. He was initially a sweet and happy kid from a large family. But by age 16 things had changed, he was writing jokes for newspapers and earning more money then his parents.
His early flirtation with show business was as an unlikely stand-up comic. The shy guy had to be pushed out on stage and was so nervous he’d tie the microphone chord around his neck. Then he made his first forays into TV in completely absurd cameos that were designed to up his exposure. Snippets of these are included here and feature a boxing match with a kangaroo and a singing duet with a talking dog. Really.
His graduation to the silver screen was in 1965 with What’s New Pussycat? Because he was just the “writer” he soon learned about the lack of control that came with the territory and with that a life as a director was born. It has been a good one and Allen admits to fulfilling all of his childhood dreams.
The featured interviews are with his peers and the Hollywood royalty that he’s worked with including: Martin Scorsese, Larry David, Diane Keaton, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Mira Sorvino and Owen Wilson. The A-listers are quick to praise and applaud Allen for his genius even though his interaction with the actors seems to largely involve stepping back and allowing them to develop their own parts. It’s a formula that has worked and assisted them in picking up their fair share of Oscars. There are also talking heads from Allen’s inner circle including his sister, managers and co-writer.
While Allen’s private life and female muses are addressed, the break-up of his “marriage” to Mia Farrow and the subsequent, scandalous relationship with Farrow’s stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn is swiftly dealt with and both ladies are noticeably absent among the interviewees. Most fans probably won’t mind these omissions as the focus is on the filmmaker’s craft, as various scenes from his productions are cut together with interviews to tell a mostly chronological, life story. We also get some candid access to Allen at home and on the job- on-set and in the editing suite.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is an intimate portrait of the elusive eccentric; witty raconteur; humorist and colourful personality. At times playing like an episode of This Is Your Life, this is one rose-tinted view of a still hungry and driven grumpy old man as he continues his lifelong journey and grapples with philosophy, existence, human relationships, comedy and the absurd. And while the documentary doesn’t answer all the questions you had about Allen but were afraid to ask, it still offers warm and amusing snatches of the man through a rather affectionate love letter.
Review score: 4 stars
Originally published on 10 June 2012 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/sydney/sydney-film-festival-2012-review-woody-allen-a-documentary-ctc
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