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New Steve Martin documentary spotlights a comedy legend with nothing left to prove

Steve Martin in the Apple TV+ documentary <em>STEVE!</em>
Apple TV+
Steve Martin in the Apple TV+ documentary STEVE!

It's a question that often doesn't get asked in big time documentaries about big deal Hollywood stars.

And in this case, filmmaker Morgan Neville waits until the second installment of his sprawling project on comedy legend Steve Martin – STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces – to show his star answering a question that really should be put to every famous participant facing the cameras in a major biography:

Why are you doing this?

"I see it as an antidote to the sort of anodyne interviews, generic things I've talked about a million times," Martin says about Apple TV+'s giant-sized documentary, which is divided into two films, titled Then and Now.

"What an odd life," he adds. "My whole life is backwards. How did I go from riddled with anxiety in my 30s, to [age] 75 and really happy? How did this happen?"

Redefining comedy by playing the buffoon

Fans may already know the nuts and bolts of how Martin's success happened, particularly because he wrote a well-regarded memoir in 2007, Born Standing Up. Eventually, he became the one of the biggest stand-up comics in the world by age 35, packing arenas with his absurdist comedy.

But it's not until sitting down with the entire, three-hour-plus documentary – especially the second installment on his current life – that you realize Martin may be one of the most famous and well-liked comics who remains something of an enigma personally, even to his showbiz friends.

(One of my favorite moments in the second film involves a quick montage of people, like his Only Murders in the Building co-star Tina Fey, and Monty Python member Eric Idle, admitting they don't really know this person they have been friendly with for years.)

As a teen, Steve Martin performed magic shows with funny patter.
/ Apple TV+
/
Apple TV+
As a teen, Steve Martin performed magic shows with funny patter.

So it is remarkable that Martin exposes so much of his life here to Neville — the Oscar-winning director of beloved non-fiction films like 20 Feet from Stardom, an exploration of background singers, and the Mister Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor. The comic, now 78, offers a treasure trove of material: set lists, recordings of old performances back to his teenage years, family photos, new interviews with his current wife and non-showbizzy friends and more.

He even puts on his costume from the 1986 film Three Amigos! – which he has kept and still fits into.

The journey of a restless, cerebral artist

What emerges through the two different films which make up STEVE! — developed with different sensibilities and approaches — is the journey of an often-restless artist who doggedly leveraged ambition, talent and a sharp analytical intellect to build a career which defied boundaries and revolutionized stand-up comedy.

"I always thought of him as the door out of the '60s," says John McEuen, a co-founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a longtime friend of Martin's, describing how his comedy was a bridge from the more issue-oriented standup of the 1960s to something more frivolous in the 1970s. "You know, [with him] you could be silly again."

The documentary's first installment shows how long it took Stephen Glenn Martin to find early success. It stretches from his start as a teenager performing magic shows with funny patter around his hometown of Garden Grove, Calif., all the way to working as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour TV show and as an opener for performers like Linda Ronstadt.

Time spent studying philosophy in college led him to think about deconstructing comedy intellectually, including the concept of "indicators."

"[Indicators are] the things comedians do to indicate that the joke is over," Martin says, his voice floating over clips of old school comics telling jokes. "And whether it was funny or not, the audience has made a pact; that's when we laugh....[But] that's not real laughter. So I thought, 'What if I created tension and never released it?'"

That's what brings real laughter, Martin says. But it took him 15 years to perfect the idea, developing a character so taken with himself he often didn't realize how dumb he was or how absurd his efforts to entertain were. Martin says that this persona, his "wild and crazy guy" – which he modified when he walked away from stand-up comedy at the height of his popularity — was a revelation, too.

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

How longing and loneliness shaped his comedy

The documentary's first installment features much more traditional storytelling, fortified by amazing archival material capturing Martin's early days. But the second film is more intimate and revelatory, digging into everything from his strained relationship with his emotionally withholding father to how themes of loneliness and longing have powered so much of his work in films like The Jerk, Roxanne and Bowfinger.

One moment, he's describing his father's reaction to his first big movie, 1979's The Jerk ("Well, he's no Charlie Chaplin," Glenn Martin said to his son at dinner after the premiere). The next, he's rooting through bound copies of his movie scripts, digging up a line from a monologue by the late John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which makes him tear up.

As Neville captures him working on what would become Number One Is Walking, the 2022 book of cartoons illustrating his life in film, the director eventually asks Martin and his cartoonist collaborator Harry Bliss to provide similar illustrations for the documentary. They even disguise the comic's young daughter by superimposing an animated cartoon over her when she appears in footage.

It's a portrait of a man who has learned to relax and enjoy his life, realizing that it makes everything – including his work – better.

If there's any drawback here, it's that even a project spanning two films and more than three hours still isn't quite enough to detail Martin's wide-ranging and mind-bogglingly successful career.

Though we hear anecdotes about films like Three Amigos! and Roxanne, there's little or no time devoted to equally captivating movies like All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors, Parenthood, Grand Canyon and Father of the Bride. Martin has been a novelist, Broadway composer and lyricist, banjo musician and host (twice) of the Academy Awards. In fact, he's one honor short of an EGOT, with Oscar, Emmy and Grammy awards under his belt. But the film brushes by or doesn't mention much of this.

"As you get older, you either become your worst self or your best self," Martin says, during a drive with Only Murders costar Martin Short. "And I've become...nicer, kinder, more open."

"Yeah," Short chimes in, impishly, "because for about 50 years there, you were a real prick."

STEVE! the documentary argues that Martin has indeed landed in a wonderful place, outlining the journey of an ambitious, intelligent, supremely talented artist who finally earned enough success to realize he has nothing left to prove.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.