Woody Allen: A Documentary

By Paul Byrne


Directed by Robert B. Weide. Starring Woody Allen, Letty Aronson, Diane Keaton, Dick Cavett, Charles H. Joffe, Jack Rollins, Martin Scorsese.

THE PLOT: Amidst the talking heads and the archive footage and photographs, Allen walks us through his early childhood landmarks – the opulent Midwood Theatre, just around the corner from his Brooklyn birthplace; the schoolyard where a fellow student tried to run him over with his car – and then his career. Starting out as a professional gag writer, churning out 50 gags daily after school on his Olympia typewriter (a typewriter he has used for all his work ever since) for $25 a day, by the age of 16, Allan Stewart Konigsberg was earning more than his parents. The gag writing led to stand-up, which petrified the newly-named Woody Allen, but his manager soon made him a star through constant TV exposures (alongside the major talkshows, Woody also found himself in a boxing ring with a kangaroo and singing with a dog). A move into movies seemed inevitable, but having his What’s New, Pussycat? script mangled by the studio saw Allen insisting that he henceforth have complete control over every movie that he made. And that’s only the first act here…

THE VERDICT: Director Robert B. Weide (best known for his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm) plainly came here to praise not criticise the notoriously media-shy Allen, but the resulting film is nonetheless fascinating. As he walks the streets of his beloved New York in his trademark fisherman’s cap and dark-rimmed specs, you realise that Woody Allen is a true icon of popular culture. He’s Groucho, he’s Chaplin, he’s Buster Keaton, only this comedic giant just keeps on going, still releasing, on average, a film a year as he cruises through his 70s. In fact, the easiest comparison is Dylan, and like Scorsese’s No Direction Home, this documentary (edited down from last year’s American Masters 192min TV outing on PBS; here’s hoping that’s the DVD) plays like a giddy celebration. Like Dylan, Allen is self-effacing but far from McCartney mock-humble, which only adds to the charm.

And if Allen doesn’t shy away from his stated admiration for drama over comedy - even though his initial attempts to move from Buster to Bergman with the likes of Interiors and Stardust Memories were, ironically, laughed off the screen - Weide doesn’t dwell too long on another downfall. Namely, the “great cosmic rift” that came with Mia Farrow discovering that her long-term partner was having an affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi. Suddenly, Allen went from dominating The New York Times to hitting the cover of The New York Post on a regular basis. Bizarrely, during those childcatcher years, Allen delivered two of his finest movies, Husbands & Wives (Farrow discovering those famous nude polaroids during the shoot, but, after 3 days away, agreeing to finish the film) and Bullets Over Broadway (co-writer Doug McGrath recalling constant dark, lawyer phonecalls interrupting their working days). Still, by the time the end credits roll here, you realise just how many great movies Woody Allen has made, and you’ll want to go and revisit them all. RATING: 4/5

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