April 15, 2024


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Steve Martin's doc on Apple TV+ spotlights the comedy legend: NPR

Steve Martin's doc on Apple TV+ spotlights the comedy legend: NPR

Steve Martin in the Apple TV+ documentary Steve!

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Steve Martin in the Apple TV+ documentary Steve!

Apple TV+

It's a question that's not often asked in big documentaries about major Hollywood stars.

In this case, director Morgan Neville is waiting until the sequel to his sprawling project about comedy legend Steve Martin – Steve! (Martin) is a two-part documentary – To show his star answering a question that should be asked to every famous participant who faces the cameras in a major biopic:

Why are you doing this?

“I see it as an antidote to the kind of anodyne interviews, the generic stuff that I've talked about a million times,” Martin says of the massive Apple TV+ documentary, which is split into two titled films. then And now.

“What a strange life,” he adds. “My whole life is backwards. How did I go from having anxiety in my 30s to… [age] 75 and really happy? How did this happen?”

Redefining comedy by playing the clown

Fans probably already know the ins and outs of how Martin's success came about, especially since he wrote a highly regarded memoir in 2007, Born standing. Eventually, he became one of the biggest stand-up comedians in the world at the age of 35, filling arenas with his absurdist comedy.

But it's not until you've watched the three-plus hour documentary — especially the second part about his current life — that you realize that Martin may be one of the most famous and celebrated comedians who personally remains something of an enigma. Even to his friends in the entertainment world.

(One of my favorite moments in the second movie involves a quick montage of people, like him.) Murders only in the building Co-star Tina Fey and Monty Python cast member Eric Idle admit they don't really know this person they've been friendly with for years.)

So it's remarkable that Martin reveals so much of his life here to Neville – the Oscar-winning director of beloved non-fiction films like 20 feet from stardom, Exploring background singers and the Mister Rogers documentary You won't be my neighbor. The comedian, now 78, offers a treasure trove of material: set lists, recordings of old shows dating back to his teenage years, family photos, new interviews with his now-wife and non-show friends, and more.

He's even wearing his costume from the 1986 movie Three friends! – which he kept and still fits.

The journey of a cerebral, troubled artist

What is shown through the two different films that make up Steve! – Developed with different sensibilities and styles – is the journey of an often troubled artist who doggedly leveraged ambition, talent, and sharp analytical thought to build a career that defied boundaries and revolutionized stand-up comedy.

“I always viewed it as an exit door to the 1960s,” says John McQueen, co-founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a longtime friend of Martin's, describing how his comedy served as a bridge from more issue-oriented work. The 1960s stood for something more frivolous in the 1970s. “you know, [with him] “You can be silly again.”

The first part of the documentary shows how long it took Stephen Glenn Martin to achieve early success. It spans from his beginnings as a teenager performing prank magic shows around his hometown of Garden Grove, California, all the way to working as a writer for… The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour TV show and as an opening act for performers such as Linda Ronstadt.

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His time studying philosophy in college got him thinking about deconstructing comedy intellectually, including the concept of “indicators.”

“[Indicators are] “Things that comedians do to signal that a joke is over,” Martin says, his voice floating over clips of old comic strips telling jokes. “Whether it's funny or not, the audience has made an agreement; then we laugh….[But] This is not real laughter. So I thought: “What if I create tension and never release it?”

That's what brings the real laughs, Martin says. But it took him 15 years to perfect the idea, developing a character so drawn to himself that he often didn't realize how stupid he was or how ridiculous his efforts to entertain were. This character, the “wild, crazy guy” — which he modified when he moved away from stand-up comedy at the height of his popularity — was also a revelation, Martin says.

“I started to realize that what I was doing was a parody of show business,” he says.

How longing and loneliness shaped his comedy

The first part of the documentary features more traditional storytelling, enhanced by stunning archival material capturing Martin's early days. But the second film is more intimate and inspiring, delving into everything from his strained relationship with his emotionally isolated father to how themes of loneliness and longing underpin much of his work in films like Asshole, Roxanne And Buffinger.

At one point, he was describing his father's reaction to his first major film in 1979 This bastard (“Well, it's not Charlie Chaplin,” Glenn Martin told his son over dinner after the premiere.) The next day, he's digging through bound copies of his film scripts and extracts a line from a monologue by the late John Candy in… Planes, trains, cars, Which makes it tear apart.

Neville also depicts him working on what he would become Number one walks, a 2022 book of cartoons that illustrates his life on film, the director eventually asked Martin and his collaborating cartoonist Harry Bliss to provide similar illustrations for the documentary. They even hide the comedian's young daughter by superimposing an animated cartoon over her when she appears in the footage.

It's a portrait of a man who learned to relax and enjoy his life, knowing that it made everything — including his work — better.


If there's any flaw here, it's that even a project spanning two films and over three hours still isn't enough to detail Martin's wide-ranging and astonishingly successful career.

Although we hear stories about films like Three friends! And Roxannethere is little or no time devoted to equally exciting films like… All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors, Parenthood, Grand Canyon And Father of the bride. Martin was a Broadway novelist, composer, lyricist, banjo musician, and host (twice) of the Academy Awards. In fact, he's one EGOT honor away, with Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys under his belt. But the film ignores or doesn't mention much of this.

“As you get older, you either become your worst or your best,” Martin says while driving. Murders only Costar Martin Short. “And I've become… prettier, kinder, more outgoing.”

“Yes,” Short chimes in slyly, “because for about 50 years, you've been a real prick.”

Steve! The documentary argues that Martin has already arrived at a great place, charting the journey of an ambitious, intelligent, and extremely talented artist who finally achieves enough success to realize that he has nothing left to prove.