An obvious labor of love, director Robert Weide’s 3 1/2-hour “Woody Allen: A Documentary” might be called a warts-and-some look at the press-shy filmmaker, whose staggering movie-a-year pace over the last four decades has resulted in a highly impressive if flawed body of work. Shifting back and forth between the man and his movies, the two-part doc for PBS’ “American Masters” includes interviews with a wide assortment of Allen collaborators, actors and exes (the notable exception being Mia Farrow) to create about as comprehensive and intimate a portrait of the comic genius as his personal quirks will allow.
A successful writer already in his teens, Allen transitioned into standup largely at the urging of his managers, Charles Joffe and Jack Rollins, bouncing around for a time before something clicked — either in him or his audience — and the jokes really began working.
Movies followed, although his disappointment in the adaptation of his screenplay for “What’s New Pussycat?” soured him on writing anything he didn’t direct. The madcap “Take the Money and Run” inaugurated a string of modest comedy hits that, most significantly, established the pattern of Allen demanding and retaining creative control.
Although he had extensive access to Allen, some of the early clips and comments from dozens of others — from Diane Keaton to Dick Cavett to writing partner Marshall Brickman — are actually more illuminating. Weide also does a nifty job of chronicling Allen’s evolution from comedy into more serious fare, concluding part one with the dour “Interiors” and much-resented “Stardust Memories,” which most perceived as a direct slap at his fans — a suggestion Allen denies.
Part two is more complicated, incorporating as it does the most public chapter of Allen’s life — his split with Farrow and revelations about his romantic involvement with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, 34 years his junior. Allen doesn’t seem as interested in defending his behavior as being mystified over what even he acknowledges was a “juicy story” becoming fodder for the evening news.
Given its presentation under the “American Masters” banner, “Woody Allen” accomplishes its most pressing objective: Providing fascinating insight into Allen’s creative process. This includes scribbling film ideas on random slips of paper, firing actors when it’s not working out, and after hiring stars who are eager to work with him, having learned to “get out of their way and shut up.” Associates also cite an almost uncanny ability to compartmentalize, which helps explain how prolific he’s remained.
Perhaps inevitably, the docu’s second half isn’t as compelling as the first — when we can enjoy the simplicity of his “early funny ones” — but it does heighten appreciation of Allen’s durability. And while there’s considerable discussion from the filmmaker about his work’s limited commercial appeal, the box office success of “Midnight in Paris” neatly caps the documentary with something Allen has often resisted as he matured — namely, a happy ending.