Woody Allen: A Documentary, assembled by Curb Your Enthusiasm director and producer Robert B. Weide, is a brisk, engaging but hardly definitive run through the life and works of possibly the most instantly recognisable writer and director working in film today. Allen’s always seemed a bit unknowable, despite his familiarity and frequent, if reluctant, promotional interviews, and this film doesn’t really change that, but it does at least give us a bit of insight into his writing methods (reams of scruffy handwritten notes, which provide the raw material for screenplays that are always written up on the same typewriter, with sections literally cut and stapled together where necessary) and his on-set directing style, which seems to consist mainly of letting the actors get on with it with a minimum of non-specific encouragement. There are interviews with an impressive array of actors, critics and producers (including Allen’s sister Letty Aronson) and a lot of highly entertaining footage of the younger Woody appearing on TV chat shows and comedies. The most interesting section of the documentary is probably that which deals with Allen’s childhood and gradual breakthrough into the entertainment business via jokes that he sold to the papers. These commissions eventually led to his first public appearances as a highly nervous and awkward stand-up comic – he was lucky that his natural talent caught the attention of his long-time managers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, whose shrewd handling of his career in the 60s meant that he ended up in a position where he could demand complete creative control when he started making movies. Allen admits that he hadn’t achieved anything significant enough by then to really justify such a leap of faith by any studio.
After this opening section the film falls into a pattern of going through Allen’s most celebrated, and occasionally notorious, films one by one, and we get to see his progress from the surreal rat-a-tat comedy of 1969’s Take The Money And Run, through the early, funny ones like Bananas and Sleeper, and on to the pivotal Annie Hall, where the humour was tempered by surprisingly incisive dissections of modern relationships for the first time. Allen has since then consistently frustrated his fanbase by opting for quantity over quality – a film a year rather than an obsessive mission to create a masterpiece, and while this way of working has thrown up its fair share of turkeys in recent years, his hit-rate until the mid 90s was actually fairly amazing: Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Hannah And Her Sisters, Crimes And Misdemeanours and Husbands And Wives ought to be enough to satisfy anyone looking for a gold run. I’m not convinced by the suggestion put forward here that 2005’s ropey London-based Match Point is a dramatic return to form (the tin-eared dialogue is excruciating to anyone brought up in the UK), but at least the unexpected worldwide success of last year’s light and fluffy Midnight In Paris provides Weide with a happy ending.
Where this documentary comes up short, and it may be somewhat inevitable given time constraints, is in its occasional elisions and glossings-over of certain aspects of Allen’s life and career. There’s no mention of his first, unhappy marriage, from which he mined a lot of the material he used in his stand-up act, and while his first, and deeply unsatisfactory, foray into screenwriting on What’s New, Pussycat? is included, it’s also implied that this was the last time Allen allowed anyone else to direct or tamper with his scripts, which conveniently ignores both his work on the original Casino Royale, and more significantly possibly his best early 1970s comedy Play It Again, Sam, which was directed by Herbert Ross. Weide’s film is also a bit lacking when it comes to discussing Woody’s influences, whether they be comedic (no Marx brothers or S.J.Perelman), cinematic (Bergman and Fellini only get mentioned in passing) or musical (one of the most characteristic elements in his films is the use of jazz and ragtime, and this is completely passed over). The documentary is however commendably candid when it gets to Allen’s explosive break-up with Mia Farrow (unsurprisingly, Farrow doesn’t appear as an interviewee, though Woody does offer a generous assessment of her merit as an actor).
Allen looks remarkably well-preserved in his interview segments and offers some frank and self-deprecating evaluations of both his life and work. I guess at some point he’ll stop making films, but as one of his biographers points out, given that both his parents were still alive and kicking in their late 90s it may be a while yet.