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Woody Allen: A Documentary


Stars: Woody Allen: Featuring Letty Aronson, Josh Brolin, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, John Cusack, Larry David, Scarlett Johansson, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Dianne Wiest, Julie Kavner, Martin Landau, Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, Mira Sorvino, Naomi Watts

Director: Robert Weide.

Woody Allen frequently claims to have a low opinion of his work (at least, in Robert Weide’s fascinating and well worth seeing made-for-US television documentary which is receiving a welcome cinema release) with self-deprecating comments like “I’ve been making films on the quantity theory” and adding “so few of them have been worth anything”.

Given Allen’s reputation as a writer and actor (in his own films, at least) the comments may simply be part of the accomplished act that is Allen in this film although his claim to “the quantity theory” is well justified since he continues, to grind out film after film more or less yearly. Result? The Good, the Bad and Scoop. (The latter was never shown in British cinemas, although it did receive a minor release by Kurdish DVD pirates in north London. The BBC, who funded it and two other of Allen’s least good films with our television licence money, did screen Scoop late at night on TV but sensibly did not publicise the transmission).

Scoop is not one of the movies featured in Weide’s film although he does show Allen directing and then editing another poor made-in-Britain movie, I See a Tall Dark Stranger, which proves Allen works hard and professionally even on his duds.

The film shows Allen early days as a gag writer for New York newspaper columnists and cheap shows before graduating to stand-up comic and, among other things, boxing a kangaroo on television. We see something of his family life, including a somewhat strange interview he filmed with his mother and frequent appearances by his producer-sister Letty Aronson. Other notables who turn up to praise Allen include, his former wife Louise Lasser, costar and one-time partner Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, his co-screenwriter Marshall Brickman, Josh Brolin (from I See a Tall Dark Stranger), Mariel Hemingway and Scarlett Johansson. Mia Farrow is conspicuous by her absence.

It’s interesting to note that Allen has directed all his starring movies from his first, What’s Up Tiger Lily?, with the exception of half a dozen, plus several in which he does not appear. So that probably confirms him as a true auteur.

Whether farcical (Sleeper) or simply a tad pretentious or, if you prefer, a brilliant homage to Bergman (Interiors) his films are always worth watching and, impressively, still able to hit the heights ( Midnight in Paris) after rather too many failures. Allen appears to realise this, and claims “I still screw up a lot of the time”. True – but when he’s good, he’s terrific. Just like this documentary.

Alan Frank

USA 2012. UK Distributor: Soda Pictures. Colour.
113 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: U.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 08 Jun 2012