Woody Allen: A Documentary Review: An Insightful If Incomplete Portrait

A breezy distillation of Allen's body of work, if inevitably glossing over his colourful personal life.

Shaun Munro

Contributor

Rating: ★★★½☆

While it is arguable that Woody Allen is best known to some for his personal controversies rather than his plaudits as a filmmaker, one hugely distinguishing facet is his seemingly indefatigable work ethic. Making a film a year practically without fail, it is therefore novel that this year, we get an extra Allen feature, a documentary about the man himself (from frequent Curb Your Enthusiasm director Robert B. Weide).

Strictly opposed to Kim Ki-duk’s self-serving documentary Arirang also on release this week, Woody Allen: A Documentary is a more level-headed look at a master filmmaker, not at all steeped in portent and keen to examine both the highs and lows of his professional – more so than personal – life. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Chris Rock, Owen Wilson, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Diane Keaton and Larry David chime in on the brilliance of the man, while some candidly acknowledge the share of duds he has subjected us to also. Even Allen himself, interviewed here, admits that great filmmaking has alluded him recently (that is, until Midnight in Paris last year).

Starting right at the beginning, we meet Allen’s sister and mother (the latter through archive footage) as they discuss Woody’s upbringing in Brooklyn, complete with smart injections of clips from his films which seem to imply a personal meaning. From here we’re introduced to his early career through some hilarious standup clips that even ardent Allen fans probably have never seen. His charm from an early age makes his success no surprise, and these clips remind us he was well-lodged in the American cultural consciousness long before he started making films.

Nowadays, Allen is an unquestionable auteur, but once upon a time, young and naïve, he found himself subject to studio wrangling (as a writer on What’s New Pussycat?), such that he found himself seizing directorial control, a move that has since defined his entire filmmaking career on every level. Once establishing this firm ground, Weide takes us through a breezy travelogue of Allen’s career, quickly remarking why each film was made and who he liked working with. Despite the conventional delivery, just listening to Allen speak passionately is fascinating, particularly his self-deprecating sensibility – after all, he begged the studio not to release Manhattan because he hated it so much. Despite his massive critical success and loyal fanbase, he seems pleasantly down-to-Earth, not taking critique too personally and happy to engage with it.

Through talking with esteemed critics such as Leonard Maltin, pains are made to reconcile the key tenets of Allen’s work, chiefly the search for God against the inevitability of death, and as a life-long student of love as we all are, those piercing insights into relationship dynamics. Juxtaposed with an insight into the man’s own romances – including collaborators Keaton and Mia Farrow – it helps to paint a meaningful, if unfinished, portrait. Crucially missing is much devotion to Allen’s less-savoury personal escapades, namely his infamous marriage to Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Though Allen briefly shares a few pragmatic remarks about the scandalous reaction to it, greater insight into the response from within Hollywood and its effect on his career would have served the film better.

Eventually returning to Woody’s late corpus of work, the man himself ably embraces his recent so-called “off period”, remarking that he has “made 40 films but so few are worth anything”, expressing frustration with the painstaking process of making films, and resolving that he won’t ever make a box office hit. Quite ironically, his last film, Midnight in Paris, proved his biggest monetary success by a considerable margin, and in rebuke, simply remarks that he hopes to keep making films and every so often hit the right note.

Woody Allen is a filmmaker who still writes scripts on a typewriter, rather fittingly given the nostalgic stylings of his last film (even if it did ultimately concede the futility of rose-tinting the past). He is an institution of filmmaking’s old guard, and this documentary, though more successful as an examination of Woody the filmmaker than Woody the human being, is fruitful enough for both Allen hardcores and the uninitiated. It is hardly hagiographic, but there is the distinct feeling that Weide took it easy for fear of causing offence.

A breezy distillation of Allen’s body of work, if inevitably glossing over his colourful personal life.

Woody Allen: A Documentary is on limited release in UK cinemas tomorrow.