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‘STEVE! (martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces’ Review: Morgan Neville’s Revealing Double Feature On A Comic Superstar Who Kept His Life Very Private – Until Now

Morgan Neville is an Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy winning documentarian who has a knack for going deep inside the worlds of various entertainment and media figures in memorable films like the Academy Award winner 20 Feet From Stardom about backup singers; Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers; The Best Of Enemies focused on the rivalry of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal; Roadrunner which delved into the world of Anthony Bourdain; and films on everyone from Orson Welles to Keith Richards and many others. But in getting Steve Martin to finally commit to a documentary on his life and extraordinary career as groundbreaking stand up comedian to movie star, author, playwright, and musician, Neville got even more than he could have imagined. After HBO’s Defending My Life, Rob Reiner’s recent terrific documentary on a similar comic and film genius Albert Brooks, this insightful and fascinating view into the world of the equally brilliant Martin is another reason to celebrate.

The final result, STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces, was just too big for one film so Neville turned it into two feature length docs, and that turns out to be an inspired choice as Martin’s career is indeed two uniquely different pieces of the same artist, unusual and certainly versatile to say the least. In the first film, Then, the filmmaker covers the early years and his slow, sometimes agonizing, rise to success as the first standup comic to play arenas and sell them out in the 70’s, to the second film, Now, showcasing a far different and more introspective Martin completely abandoning his standup act in 1980 and going on to become a major movie star while finding a personal life in show business is no easy thing to navigate. It is the perfect double feature, one where what is behind the man and his genius is more integral to the storytelling than the impressive and vast amount of archival footage and clips, much of it from Martin’s own vault, that Neville has managed to squeeze into the over 3 hours combined running time of STEVE! (martin).

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Martin, has always kept his private life, including his vast art collection and relationships, far from the prying public eye, instead letting his various showbiz personas take center stage. Neville, once he won Martin’s trust, got carte blanche to go much deeper including into Martin’s home and inner life, and it is a fascinating portrait of a man, often alone, longing for other things not always easily attainable for a superstar who seemingly has it all. Longing is in fact a key theme that comes up both for Martin’s on screen persona and his off-screen life. Some of his closest friends including frequent co-star and now comedy partner Martin Short (Only Murders In The Building), Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, Jerry Seinfeld, family, close friends, and others all participate in trying to help explain just who Martin was and is, but most important of all, there is Martin himself who has opened up more than ever in looking back at his 78 years on this planet, essentially putting it all in the hands of Neville to make of it what he will.

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Four years ago I came across an auction where Martin had put about 150 items from his career on the block, including several awards he won like his People’s Choice and American Cinematheque Life Achievement Awards, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy nomination certificates, Critics group Best Actor awards, and so much more. The proceeds went to the Motion Picture and Television Fund but it appeared to me Martin was clearing away much of his past. With this documentary, and the access afforded to Neville, it looks like he is still doing it. As it turned out there is so much more to this man and he lays it all out for Neville’s cameras, especially in the second film.

As good as that one is, the first movie showcasing his early journey to mega stardom is the most intriguing because it meticulously chronicles the creative process and discovery of this future icon as he struggles to find his own authentic self on stage and in show business. It also lifts the veil on his family and growing up with an incredibly “happy childhood” he says he had “on the outside”, but not necessarily inside the home where his father was distant and there were “no hugs”. Martin it seems was looking for dad’s approval and never quite got it, no matter how much he tried. It actually shows he got much more love from the likes of Johnny Carson. Those Tonight Show appearances are given generous time here as is a vast amount of footage detailing his rise from Disneyland employee to first big time success as a 20-year-old writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to a guy who “opened” for just about everybody, to someone whose time had finally come and whose quirky “wild and crazy” comedy style hit the zeitgeist like no other. Then in August of 1980 he did his last show and never did his infamous act again. Cue Part 2.

In Now, Martin also proves to be a shrewd observer of filmmaking and what makes movies work, particularly his, and that also includes those that didn’t work as a lethal Siskel and Ebert review of Mixed Nuts painfully showed. There is also much time given to his love for art, many past relationships including his marriage to Victoria Tennant because, well, as he says “I decided I probably should get married”, to his current truly happy union with his wife Anne and bliss as a first-time father, something he never expected would be part of his life. His relationship with Bernadette Peters is barely touched on (mostly in movie clips), and I wish there was at least a mention of the great Carl Reiner and his importance to Martin as the director of some of his best movies, including The Jerk which is liberally shown here. As in the first film, Neville spends a lot of time delving into Martin’s creative process, especially in honing his jokes with Short and writing a new illustrated book on his movies.

There is so much here. It really is an exhaustive look at a star who has decided to let his fans in for far more than they ever might have thought possible. It appears little is left on the cutting room floor, almost to the point this documentary might have been named after the movie many consider Steve Martin’s best: All Of Me.

Producers are Neville, Meghan Walsh, Charlise Holmes.

Title: STEVE! (martin) A Documentary In 2 Pieces
Distributor: Apple Original Films
Premiere date: March 29, 2024 (streaming on Apple TV+)
Director: Morgan Neville
Rating: TV-MA
Running time: 1 hr 38 min (Part 1); 1 hr 35 min (Part 2)

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