STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces Review | Wild Man/Subdued Man

by Andrew Parker

STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces takes a uniquely artful and philosophical approach to traditional biographical documentary conventions. Essentially two separate movies that just so happen to be about the same person, director Morgan Neville dives fathoms deep into the work and mindset of comedy legend Steve Martin, a talent known for upending expectations while still managing to give mainstream audiences what they want. For a reflection of a comedian who started their career by trying to push established conventions while still putting on a heck of a show, STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces hits an unusually pleasing, comprehensive sweet spot without compromise.

Each of the two parts in question are roughly ninety minutes and take on different forms and functions when discussing the career of Steve Martin from start to finish. The first half, titled Then, examines Martin’s early years as a stand-up comedian, from his humble beginnings as a young magician and souvenir guide peddler at Disneyland to walking away from the medium almost entirely by the end of the 1970s. The second half, titled Now, captures Martin in the present, reflecting on his career in film (and recent resurrection as a streaming star thanks to Only Murders in the Building) and doting upon his good fortunes over the years.

That’s an interesting approach to covering a career as varied as Martin’s, but esteemed documentary veteran Neville (Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, 20 Feet From Stardom) follows his subject’s lead and makes an ambitious project fitting of the actor and comic’s career. Then is made up entirely of archival materials and recordings, with audio of modern contextual interviews playing over old footage and photographs. In this section, Neville takes a granular, expertly assembled and edited look at a self-effacing (and often self-deprecating) artist who made it their business to own the stage, despite the fact that they never believed in their own talent. Then looks at how Martin took a philosophical approach to comedy, and how he handled numerous criticisms of his often avant-garde act; navigating the tricky, rising waters of stardom with almost no outside advice or influence.

STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces starts off with Martin looking back on his early years with equal amounts of pride and skepticism. He clearly still has some affinity for his early years and his naivety, but also remembers why he abandoned stand-up in the first place. He didn’t love failure, though he often courted it just to see where it would lead. Martin speaks in great detail about how the joy started to wan once he started feeling more like a commodity and less like a performer. Neville has plenty of material to pull from in terms of audio and visuals, since Martin’s 1970s output was legendary at the time. But the real jewel in the crown of STEVE (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces is relatively unfettered access to a wealth of the comedian’s numerous private journals and diaries. Visually, Neville is able to create a sense of time and place, but Martin’s own words and reflections add a lot of much needed emotion to show the human being behind an act that sometimes went over the heads of his audience.

Then, as in our own everyday lives, provides a perfect set-up for Now, which Neville frames as a totally different film, using Martin’s first major on screen starring role in The Jerk as a pivot point where one story ends and another begins. Instead of strictly relying on archival materials that have been assembled along a concurrent audio timeline, STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces becomes something a bit more familiar to audiences in terms of style and approach, but also more unique than they might be expecting. In Now, viewers get more insight into how Martin lives today, apparently happier than ever about where his career has taken him, and detailing the dual processes of putting together a new touring stage production with collaborator Martin Short and assembling comic strips for a new book detailing his career in the movies.

Martin describes this difference of styles in both parts of the documentary quite well in Now. Whereas his stand-up career had a distinct beginning, middle, and end, his life since – particularly when it comes to discussing his films – are mostly a loose assembly of anecdotes and stories. After a more rigidly constructed and studious first half, STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces loosens up considerably, offering up on camera interviews with family, friends, and co-workers (including Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, and Lorne Michaels) and plenty more personal observations that were only lightly touched upon previously. If the first half of Neville’s project is about what it takes to make it in showbiz, the second half finds his subject trying to piece together what it all could mean.

Martin admits that he doesn’t spend more time than he has to revisiting the past, and that he’s not the type of person who will criticize others, which means Neville’s film features a lot of self-directed jabs. He speaks often about his box office duds (more than his hits, actually), his less than affectionate relationship with his parents, his own fears of becoming a father in his seventies, his failed past relationships, and how hard it is for him to open up to people. Through his relaxed approach – and with considerable assists from Short, Seinfeld, and Martin’s wife, Anne Stringfield – Neville is able to observe the performer/writer/director/musician/art enthusiast from an unforced perspective. And while Martin makes clear that he still has a lot of clearly marked, highly reasonable personal boundaries (especially when it comes to his family), Neville captures a portrait of a man who has finally learned to ease up and enjoy life a bit more in his seventies, and is thus able to speak more freely about his feelings. (The recollections of his courtship with Stringfield are wholesome and sweet, which offers nice counterbalance to the more difficult to parse feelings of his own upbringing and how it led to an unconscious need for solitude.)

STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces does a wonderful job of demystifying the nature of celebrity, even if the combined running time is unquestionably indulgent. The approach is unique, refreshing, and insightful, with one half providing necessary groundwork to appreciate the other, with each working perfectly well as their own stand alone movie. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that only people as insightful and thoughtful as Martin and Neville could manage to come up with. While many biographical documentaries about celebrities are entertaining on a surface level and not much else, STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces is the rare example of the sub-genre that sticks with the viewer after it has run its course.

STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces streams on Apple TV+ starting Friday, March 29, 2024.

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