J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Woody Allen: A Documentary

If being neurotic is an art form than Woody Allen is Michelangelo. Film is definitely his canvas. Recently, Allen followed up one of his worst received films with his biggest hit ever (thanks to an assist from inflation). Emmy winning filmmaker Robert Weide was able to capture the idiosyncratic auteur at work on both for his in-depth two-part profile Woody Allen: A Documentary (promo here), which premieres this coming Sunday and Monday nights on PBS’s American Masters.

Frankly, anyone who knows anything about Woody Allen will be shocked he granted Weide such intimate access and consented to so many on-camera interviews. He is no publicity hound. Despite twenty-one Oscar nominations and three wins, Allen has never attended the Academy Awards, preferring his regular Monday night playing New Orleans-style jazz clarinet at the Café Carlyle. You have to respect his priorities.

Perhaps Allen is finally starting to seriously consider posterity. He opens up to a surprising extent about certain things, such as his early family life. However, this is not exactly Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Woody Allen but were Afraid to Ask. Weide duly broaches the subject of his notorious split from Mia Farrow, but he does so rather gingerly. Indeed, he never presses Allen on the propriety of carrying on a sexual relationship with the daughter of his de-facto (if not technically legal) wife. Nor does Weide ask Allen what the heck he was thinking casting Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity.

Despite overlooking that artistic nadir, Weide’s Documentary is strongest when addressing Allen’s voluminous filmography. While the compulsive work ethic and insistence on total artistic control are well established, Weide challenges the notion Allen has always been a sheltered art-house flower, clearly establishing Annie Hall and Manhattan were about as mainstream successful as films get.

Allen also offers a number of insights into the creation and execution of his major works. To nobody’s surprise, Mia Farrow does not appear in the documentary. However, Diane Keaton is a major voice in the film. Some of the best commentary though, comes from Mariel Hemingway. Weide also shrewdly includes a nice taste of its lush Gershwin soundtrack as well as several other standards heard in various Allen films, like “Sing, Sing, Sing” throughout the two installments. Indeed, Manhattan will probably be the film that spikes the most at Netflix after the documentary airs (if they are still around on Tuesday).

Considering Allen’s remarkable career rebound with Midnight in Paris, it is somewhat surprising Weide’s Documentary did not have an earlier life on the New York film festival circuit. Smartly assembled, it compares favorably with Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It covers Allen’s films, music, and stand-up quite credibly, even adding some brief nudity from Ingmar Bergman’s Monika as a bonus. Even if it keeps some of his warts under wraps, Weide’s Documentary is often fascinating (though it can never top the mother of all awkward family homecomings in Barbara Kopple’s Wild Man Blues), definitely recommended for movie lovers and Allen fans when parts one and two air on PBS this Sunday (11/20) and Monday (11/21).

(Photos: courtesy of Brian Hamill/©MGM)

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