The most exciting British debut in recent memory

By Nigel Andrews

Woody Allen: A Documentary was put together by Robert B. Weide, who directs TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb’s Larry David, closest to a Woody heir, is among those spouting praise, like a fire-fighting boat in a flotilla of interviewees sailing past the object of worship.

It is very like last Sunday’s royal river pageant on the Thames. His Majesty King Woody waves in humble appreciation, looking a touch cold and depressed. Even though he sits in a Manhattan penthouse reminiscing himself – it was at age five he first understood mortality and became “grumpier and sourer” – he seems battered by the world’s attention. His reign, though, has been 60 glorious years, from selling gags as a schoolkid to being an un-gaggable filmmaker today, who still refuses (despite some reviews) to stop making a movie a year.

I could have watched this armada forever. The clips alone, from Sleeper, Annie Hall, Zelig and others, pageant his greatness. There are also the early stand-up vignettes, hysterically funny even though Allen insists he hated going on stage. Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway testify to the treats and torments of being a Woody muse. “He was short and he was cute” is how Keaton explains the enigma of falling in love with a nerdy-looking nebbish. He made her laugh too. He would. There surely wasn’t a funnier man in the whole last century.

Weide’s film has the taste and discrimination to crop its old TV footage and Academy-ratio movie clips so they aren’t shown in Distort-o-Vision on the wide screen. I walked out of the week’s other celebrity documentary Sing Your Song (12A, Susanne Rostock): excruciatingly, its subject, the singer-activist Harry Belafonte, gets the fairground mirror treatment. The 50s/60s TV excerpts are projected wide, making Belafonte look like Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s cover gargoyle. This philistinism is endemic in much of America today. They still turn out narrow-format programming for wide TV sets. Were these people brought up in a sensory ghetto? Did they go to the Procrustes Orphanage for Herniating Young Sensibilities? Please join me in the protest movement I am starting today.

4 stars

woody collage