Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces

Josh Reviews Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces

I’ve been a fan of Steve Martin for as long as I can remember.  I probably started with his films, movies like Roxanne and L.A. Story and Parenthood and My Blue Heaven and so many more… and then found my way back into his standup, which was amazing.  (As I got older, I discovered other great Steve Martin films like The Jerk and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels… and of course I followed him to later films such as The Spanish Prisoner and Bowfinger.)  I’ve enjoyed his writing, his always-wonderful bits on talk shows and award shows, and in recent years he’s been killing it on streaming TV with Only Murders in the Building Is there anything Steve Martin can’t do??

So of course I was interested when I read that Apple TV+ would be releasing a documentary on Steve Martin.  Filmmaker Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) has intriguingly crafted TWO films that work together to capture Mr. Martin and his work.  Together these two films are Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces.

The first film focuses on Mr. Martin’s stand-up career.  This film traces his beginnings, his long journey to finding himself and his act, and then his meteoric rise to super-stardom which culminated in his playing shows in huge arenas before suddenly deciding to hang it up altogether.  It’s an incredible journey.  Mr. Martin chronicled this story himself in his must-read 2007 memoir Born Standing Up.  Having read that book, I felt I knew the story chronicled in this film.  But of course what the film has that the book doesn’t is extensive clips of Mr. Martin’s stand-up performances, both before and after he became famous.  It’s incredible to get to see these clips from Mr. Martin’s act, and to get to see before our eyes how he shaped and honed his routines over the years.  (It’s also wonderful to hear Mr. Martin talking about his approach to stand-up, to crafting a joke and shaping his routine.)

This first film is structured so that it is entirely presented in archival clips and photos.  There’s not a single talking-head interview subject to be found.  We do hear extensive audio — of both Mr. Martin talking about himself, and others talking about him — but we only hear their voices, overlaid over clips from the time being discussed.  We don’t ever see their faces.  I love this choice, as it makes this film feel different from a more standard documentary.  We feel immersed in the time-period being discussed.

The second film explores Mr. Martin’s film career, and his life today.  Here in this film, we get to see extensive new interview footage of Mr. Martin and others.  Most enjoyably, we get to see a lot of great “fly on the wall” footage of Mr. Martin and Martin Short, hanging out together and working on their two-man-show.  Steve Martin has always felt to me like a very private person, so it’s wonderfully fascinating to get to feel like we’re hanging out with him.  It’s interesting to get to hear from his wife Anne, and to learn about the late-in-life family they’ve started.  We get to see snippets of a fascinating conversation between Mr. Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, two comedy gods who are also quite different from one another.  It’s so interesting to hear them talk and debate.  (I’d love to watch that whole conversation!!)  But most of all, it’s a pleasure getting to see the deep friendship and smooth working relationship that Mr. Martin and Mr. Short share.  It’s sweet (and never not funny listening to them constantly take the piss out of one another).

I was fascinated to learn about Mr. Martin’s difficult relationship with his father, a man who seems to have withheld approval from his son throughout his life.  It’s interesting to hear Mr. Martin open up about that, and even more interesting to see how Mr. Neville has strung together clips of Mr. Martin’s movies that shows how he’s used his work to process that.  (There’s a similar sequence digging into Mr. Martin’s longing for a strong romantic relationship and how that theme has woven throughout his films.)

Speaking of Mr. Martin’s films, I sort of wish there was a third documentary just exploring his incredible body of cinematic work!  We get some great stuff in part two of the documentary, but Mr. Martin has made so many incredible movies that despite the time spent exploring some of them, there are many movies that get shortchanged.  (Classics like My Blue Heaven and Bowfinger are barely even mentioned!!)  It’s my only complaint.  I’d have loved had Mr. Martin’s movies been the focus of the second film, with a third film then allowed to focus exclusively on Mr. Martin’s life now, his collaboration with Martin Short, his late-in-life family, etc.  Oh well!

I loved how different the two films are — in style and in structure — and, at the same time, how well they fit together to give us a rounded picture of Steve Martin’s life and work.  I had a blast watching this.  As I just wrote, I wish it was even longer!!  Mr. Neville has made two wonderful films, and I could have happily watched two more.  That’s a credit both to Mr. Neville’s filmmaking — these documentaries are alive and vibrant and fun and fascinating — and to the breadth and depth of Steve Martin’s career and work.

Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces is a pleasure.  I’m glad to have seen it, and I recommend it highly.

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