Monday, April 15, 2024

“STEVE! (MARTIN) A DOCUMENTARY IN 2 PIECES”

THE STORY – A chronicle of Steve Martin’s early struggles and meteoric rise, as he revolutionized stand-up comedy; now, in the golden years of his acting career, he reflects on the transformation that led to happiness in his art and personal life.

THE CAST – Steve Martin, Finn Wittrock, Martin Short & Tina Fey

THE TEAM – Morgan Neville (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 191 Minutes


In a scene from “STEVE! (Martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces,” legendary comedian Steve Martin shows amusing sympathy for the job of his beholder, the acclaimed filmmaker and documentarian Morgan Neville. What could viewers find “worthwhile” about Martin playing a game of cards at his home? As it turns out, the intrigue is observing an intimate moment from one of the most enigmatic entertainers in show business. Adding to the intrigue, sat at the card table is longtime friend Martin Short, who has played a substantial role in Martin’s stage journey from solo performer to team player. Also at the table is Martin’s wife, Anne Stringfield, who has given him a new meaning to this chapter of his life.

This is not just any game of cards but a sweet and rather ironic glimpse into the everyday existence of an icon who tends to keep his personal life quiet. Plus, it’s an exercise in comedic timing. In the middle of Martin lamenting the idea of a documentarian having to sit and watch, Neville cuts abruptly to the next scene. “STEVE! (Martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces” dives into the precious gems of past and present to tell a funny, inspiring story of perseverance.

With over 50 years of experience in the entertainment industry — as a standup comic, actor, screenwriter, producer, playwright, author, and Grammy-winning musician — Steve Martin has lived many extraordinary lives. In all this time, Martin had never granted permission from a documentarian’s point of view. Perhaps the push was Martin himself becoming more retrospective. From studying philosophy to leaving standup behind in the pursuit of meaning and happiness, Martin’s rocky early days paved the way for a contemplative future. His sky-high success is still a question of, “How did this all happen?” for him, which Morgan Neville aims to answer.

Having previously directed the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary, “20 Feet from Stardom,” and the 2018 documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Neville has experience getting meaningful perspectives on figures in the spotlight. Martin’s personal and professional life has more than enough material for Neville to split “STEVE!” into two parts, aptly named “Then” and “Now.” This companion structure complements Martin’s philosophy on stage presence: you can choose who you want to be and make your own personality. “Then” and “Now” are like two different Steves. Each works well as a standalone piece with its own vision and tone, sharing the same skeleton but exercising different muscles.

Told through archival footage and talking heads, “Then” recollects Steve Martin’s long-winded road to success, from his time working at a magic shop and performing at a drive-in movie theatre (where people would honk if they found him funny) to doing the same act for 15 years until it caught on in the 1970s. As voiced in the documentary, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who understand Martin’s humor and those who don’t. He chased the indescribable quality of, “I don’t know why this was funny, but it was,” much to the chagrin of some critics. When he arrived on the scene in the 1960s, he was defined as the worst thing to happen to American comedy. “Then” unearths the power of retrospect and how admirably structured Martin’s act was. His approach of creating tension but never releasing it through clear indicators that a joke is a joke was a refreshing embrace of being silly without needing a reason to be.

Neville maintains a forward-thinking spirit throughout this piece. It captures the feeling of Martin being on the cusp of greatness, pushing in every direction to hone his craft. “Then” shines through the director’s immersive perspective as he incorporates rare footage of Martin’s standup performances to paint a picture. By using this archival material as a narrative structure, the documentary provides stronger insight into what kept Martin determined behind the scenes. For instance, Martin would jot down personal feedback on how his shows went and how crowds reacted. “Then” gives his stage material the space to live and breathe with a fresh set of eyes, as though the viewer is watching audiences warm up to his avant-garde humor in real time. You feel every one of his low points, though, with the comfort of knowing that success is around the corner.

Part of the joy and thrill in watching “STEVE! (Martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces” is witnessing Martin’s breakthrough in connecting with audiences. With “Then” as the primer, Neville creates narrative tension for the viewer to anticipate Martin’s accomplishments and discover how he became a cultural phenomenon. Creative details such as Martin deciding to dress in suits and let his hair go grey created a new dynamic for him on stage, where silliness met seriousness. The depiction of his gradual success gives compelling insight into how audiences felt about him at the time. “Then” puts into perspective his impact on public consciousness; people would wear bunny ears and Groucho glasses to his shows and recite his acts. He was the first comedian who could play stadiums in the 1970s and had the first platinum album in comedy history with “Let’s Get Small,” for which he won his first career Grammy.

At the height of Martin’s standup career, he swapped one speeding train for another: Hollywood. The swift transition speaks to his brilliant knack for reinvention. Once the 1980s hit, another Steve Martin emerged, intriguing crowds that knew him from the stage and welcoming a new generation that would come to know him from his film roles. Told through present-day footage and various film clips, “Now” finds Martin at his most personal and contemplative. We see how his past fits into a bigger picture. Martin’s childhood, which he described as “happy outside the house,” resurfaces through art, particularly regarding his relationship with his father.

In a clip from Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” Charles Savage (played by Martin) shares a thought of not considering his father a good man and being haunted by it. In additional footage, Martin’s 1996 one-act play “Wasp” is dramatized with a clip starring Finn Wittrock as a controlling, emotionally distant father in a dysfunctional family. The documentary reveals thematic poignant layers to Martin’s work over the years, showing how life imitates art and vice versa. Having not known what it meant to be a good dad, films also helped shape the meaning of fatherhood for Martin. He gained insight through dad roles, from 1989’s “Parenthood” and 1991’s “Father of the Bride” to 2003’s “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which gives an interesting afterthought to those performances.

The two-part documentary structure creatively shows Martin’s evolution from “Then” to “Now.” The second piece, especially, provides neat, full-circle moments that speak to his perseverance and forethought to seize a skyrocketing opportunity in making films. “Now” follows his meteoric rise to fame on the big screen with such titles as 1979’s “The Jerk” and 1987’s “Roxanne.” Whether the result of a film is successful or not, the collaborations reverberate for him. The making of John Hughes’s 1987 classic “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” lovingly stands out. “Now” captures an emotional scene of Martin flipping through the film script and admiring John Candy’s Del Griffith. In particular, lines of Candy’s dialogue that didn’t make the final cut: “I sort of attach myself to people from time to time like with you, especially around the holidays. I can take it in March, July, and October, but it gets hard. This time, I couldn’t let go.”

In Martin’s reaction, you get the sense of his introversion, which talking heads throughout the documentary allude to. He was always a solitary figure, and many of his friends don’t really know who he is deep down. The viewer gets to know Martin a little more through his humor, work, and the company he keeps (among them frequent collaborator Martin Short). Watching them enjoy each other’s company, whether riding bikes together or reviewing jokes for upcoming shows, is a real treat.

Additionally, the documentary has a delightful visual language, complementary to Martin’s affinity with the art world. “Then” incorporates a pop-up, scrapbook animation style that fits the scrappy qualities of his standup days. The buoyancy in the visuals gradually becomes calmer in “Now,” which includes classic illustrations done by the New York Times best-selling cartoonist Harry Bliss. Part two of the documentary takes a peek into Bliss’s work on Martin’s 2022 memoir, “Number One Is Walking,” an illustration of Martin’s acting career reflected in neat comic strips. It’s also interesting to see the type of artwork Martin himself tends to gravitate towards: paintings of people looking off into the distance and lonely, isolated figures. It’s incredibly heartening to watch him carry a sense of peace and home in the “Now” chapter, having met his current wife, Anne, and becoming a father (in real life) for the first time.

Morgan Neville smartly establishes two different but complementary visions to create “STEVE! (Martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces.” “Then” and “Now” work beautifully as balanced standalone pieces and as a cohesive whole. Each piece contains material that reciprocates the other. Martin’s past experiences bring an insightful perspective to the performer and person he is today. The two-part structure makes Martin’s standup days feel like several lifetimes ago, which exemplifies what the viewer is witnessing throughout the documentary. This is an artist who constantly reinvents the wheel and perseveres through each endeavor. Neville does a fabulous job of putting the viewer in the front seat to Martin’s emotions, from anxiety in his 30s to innate happiness in his 70s.

Watching “STEVE! (Martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces” provides a newfound appreciation for how, over 50 years, Steve Martin has found unique ways of connecting with audiences and creating art that will last forever.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - An entertaining watch that retains Steve Martin's silly, contemplative energy and unearths compelling layers to his personal and professional journey.

THE BAD - With a sprawling amount of material covered, the documentary can sometimes lack focus on its overall intention.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>An entertaining watch that retains Steve Martin's silly, contemplative energy and unearths compelling layers to his personal and professional journey.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>With a sprawling amount of material covered, the documentary can sometimes lack focus on its overall intention.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"STEVE! (MARTIN) A DOCUMENTARY IN 2 PIECES"