Woody Allen: A Documentary

Robert B. Weide’s documentary on Woody Allen, originally made for US Television and edited down by the Director himself for cinematic release from three-and-a-half hours to 113 minutes that flew by, has finally reached the UK. In a full-house at the BFI’s Number 1 Screen for a Preview of the film last Thursday there was naturally a lot of love for the subject in the large darkened room, with the joy of every frame even sometimes spilling out into a few laughs in the wrong places.

With the opening titles and score in the style of an Allen film, the tone is set immediately, in a documentary that is a pleasure to watch throughout, as it chronologically tells the story of a prolific independent filmmaker, who has a habit of achieving everything he wants to in life. Intercut with scenes from Allen’s own films that perfectly illuminate elements of the story as well as at times causing prolonged bouts of laughter in the audience, it also includes golden archive footage that ranges from an appearance on a chat show hosted by Derek Nimmo to Allen trading punches with a Kangaroo in a boxing ring on an American variety show.

Allen once revealed to Melvyn Bragg how he wouldn’t watch even a clip of any of his films after the final cut as he knows every scene intimately and this film sheds further light on a fascinating filmmaking process. It shows how he assembles and selects his ideas from thoughts he has written down on scraps of paper, how he touch-types scripts on a battered old typewriter where his method of cut-and-pasting text is to rearrange it is with a scissors and stapler, and contains behind-the-scenes footage as he made You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, that shows him first directing and then later in the editing suite.

The talent that Allen has in getting the best out of actors is touched on, with interviews with some of the many he has directed, including some of the sizeable number who have been awarded Oscars for their parts in his films. And because the documentary charts Allen’s career, we see the progression of a man who had an act filled with jokes about “the wife” in his stand-up routine, to the writer who Penelope Cruz accurately says, has written some of the greatest ever parts for women in cinema.

Recollections from Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts are naturally fascinating and as the story progresses through the decades the film doesn’t shy away from the toughest time in Allen’s personal life, when he was taking calls on set from his lawyers about his battle with Mia Farrow, while he was shooting Bullets on Broadway.

The impact of Annie Hall is properly covered in the film with his ground-breaking choice as Gordon Willis, the ‘Prince of Darkness’, as his choice of cinematographer rightly recognised as inspirational. Even appreciated by the Academy, which awarded it the best Oscar ahead of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 and named Allen best director ahead of Lucas and Spielberg, the documentary highlights that it was a film that changed the landscape of cinematic comedy forever. Called by many a game-changer, the best description perhaps comes from Larry David, who in his interview in the film tells Weide that the first seeing of Annie Hall was like “a bomb going off”.

As written in the Profile Piece on this website earlier this year, Allen is a filmmaker who longs to make a masterpiece, and his artistic struggles are covered here, recognising his admiration for European directors and the commercial demands he consciously rebelled against, with some well chosen footage from past BBC interviews at a time when for the first time in his career his work was being questioned. And while he may sometimes still say he hasn’t made a film with the gravitas he would like, one of the interviewees in this documentary compares him to Albert Camus, with comedy thrown in, which in one sentence suggests the regard he is rightly held in.

Known for being a harsh critic of his own films, a Q&A with Bob Weide after the screening also revealed that Allen is also privately critical of the masterpieces of others, including Casablanca, Some Like it Hot and On The Waterfront. Even more pleasing to hear was that Allen does acknowledge he likes some of his own work, including Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo and the much-criticised yet criminally under-rated Match Point.

Weide, a Producer and Director of Curb Your Enthusiasm, deliberately makes documentaries about subjects he has a passion for. And that passion comes out in every frame of this film. For any fan of Woody Allen, or indeed cinema, it is great viewing.

MG

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