Steve Martin opens up about a wild-and-crazy life and career, then and now, in ‘STEVE!’

Setting poor grammar and punctuation aside, “STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces” joins the recent Paul Simon documentary in providing a big streaming canvas to let a star open up about his life and career. In Steve Martin’s case, that includes a first half devoted to his upbringing and stand-up ascent before he walked away from that for films, while now enjoying what he calls his “backward” personal life.

The backward part of that includes remarrying late in life, having a young child and experiencing a level of contentment that eluded him during his “wild and crazy guy” days, when he was plagued by panic attacks and self-doubt.

Along the way, Martin offered what friend/musician John McEuen calls “the door out of the ‘60s” with the absurdist nature of his comedy, which satirized showbiz conventions while exhibiting a level of silliness – like taking the whole audience out for burgers – that hinged on performance art.

“He reinvented stand-up,” says “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels. “It doesn’t happen often. But he never thought success was a permanent state.”

Dividing the documentary into “Then” and “Now,” director Morgan Neville (whose resume includes documentaries about Orson Welles and Fred Rogers) dutifully details Martin’s upbringing hanging out at Disneyland, yearning to perform and dealing with an emotionally distant father whose demeanor prompts him to refer to his childhood as happy “outside the house.”

Stand-up didn’t go particularly well at first, and Martin confesses that he was thinking about teaching philosophy before landing a job writing for “The Smother Brothers” show, sharing personal notes he jotted down at the time about the scathing reviews he received.

“It took me a while to figure out this act doesn’t work everywhere,” he notes.

Steve Martin, in the "Now" half of "STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces" - Apple TV+
Steve Martin, in the "Now" half of "STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces" - Apple TV+

But arena-filling stand-up success followed, which made Martin’s decision to walk away at the height of his popularity in 1980 to pursue a career in the movies especially bold. That move provides the bridge into “Now,” as Martin chats with Jerry Seinfeld and hangs around swapping insults with “Only Murders in the Building” co-star Martin Short, telling the former, rather sweetly, that he’d probably give up performing if Short were to pre-decease him.

Despite granting the filmmakers extensive access, Martin chooses not to share an image of his daughter (a stick figure stands in for her), preferring to keep some parts of his life private. Still, there’s an ease in his manner that represents a departure from his tortured-artist days, a mood he articulates by asking, “How did I go from riddled with anxiety in my 30s to 75 and really happy?”

Aside from clips of films like “Pennies From Heaven” (a dramatic flop that clearly weighed on him) and “The Jerk,” the array of friends and associates sharing memories and insights in the doc gives a taste of both Martin the man and his charmed professional life. Those include Tina Fey, Diane Keaton and Eric Idle.

One of the benefits of streaming has been the appetite and latitude for such retrospectives, allowing artists to engage in expansive self-reflection. “STEVE!” feels like a particularly good use of that format, showcasing a personality everybody knows but, at least in his heyday, few really knew.

And if that sounds a trifle sentimental, well, excuuuse me.

“STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces” premieres March 29 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a division of Apple.)

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