I Was Predisposed To Liking This. You Likely Will, Too.

When I saw the teaser for this new Apple TV+ documentary earlier this month while waiting impatiently for my MLS match, I immediately booknoted it.  With a title like STEVE!, I felt obligated to watch no matter what.

But in this case, the name just happens to be applied to someone who is arguably a living legend in comedy, someone whose career I have followed pretty much since I had the capacity to appreciate anything funny.  And fortunately, the work that celebrates that career happens to be just as brilliant and enjoyable, though that wasn’t necessarily as easy to achieve as one might think.

As ROGEREBERT.com’s Brian Tallerico observed in his review:

There’s nothing worse than watching a bio-doc about a revolutionary, unique, creative voice that reduces the life story of its subject to the basic beats, using standard techniques instead of embracing that which made this person’s story worth telling in the first place. Director Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) likely struggled with this potential trap when approaching the life of Steve Martin, a man who has defied easy categorization his entire life. From his breakthrough days on the comedy stage, when he somehow merged an old-fashioned sense of humor with a brave new way of making people laugh, to when he left that behind to become a writer, film star, novelist, playwright, and a current TV star, Martin has been tough to pin down. Neville attempts to capture Steve Martin’s ability to never be put in an easy box in Apple TV+’s “Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces” by telling the two halves of his story in completely different formats. It’s a clever move to make what is essentially two feature-length documentaries about the man, and yet it still somehow feels like some of this story remains untold. That’s just how rich Steve Martin’s career has been.

So it’s probably more appropriate to call this a docu-mini-series, or at least documentaries.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to call only Part One a true documentary.  As Tallerico detailed:

The first half of “Steve!” is a pretty straightforward piece of archive-driven documentary filmmaking, using old photos and clips of Martin’s childhood and ascendance to superstardom under audio of Martin and people who knew him then. From his days working at Disneyland to his love of magic as a young man, Neville tracks the formation of Martin’s stage persona. There are some fascinating insights into Martin’s process, such as when he explains how a punchline is designed to release tension in an audience, but he sought to keep the tension going, playing with the very form of a comedy show. There’s also the sharp context of Martin’s rise that notes that he was a sort of response to the Vietnam Era in which everything, even comedy, felt like it had to be serious. With an arrow through his head, Martin was defiantly silly.

As Martin found his voice and popularity as a frequent guest on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and his sight gags became poster material at my college that rivaled Farrah Fawcett and Loni Anderson, I became a fan.  Enough of a fan that when Martin ended his solo stand-up career concurrent with the end of the first SNL iteration in 1980, I went to just about every movie he did.  Including some true turkeys, such as his trading bodies effort with Lily Tomlin, ALL OF ME, which Tomlin herself said she considered one of her least favorite works.  And PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, which Part Two allowed Martin a longer window to observe and muse about what went wrong.  It set a tone where Martin is more self-reflective and determined, arguably more evolved from the “wild and crazy guy” he once was.

He’s still hilarious, and thanks to his alliance with fellow Three Amigo Martin Short, he’s actually back on the live comedy stage, teamed with him there as well as the acclaimed Hulu series ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING, far and away one of that platform’s best efforts to date.  And he’s evolved into a softie in his later years, all the more evident when one sees the rapport and reverence Selena Gomez offers him every time these new Three Amigos would promote a new season.  And, bluntly, she’s far easier on the eyes than Chevy ever was or well be.

As Tallerico concluded, the most satisfying moments of STEVE! are realized in the last segments:

It’s heartwarming and even moving to see where Steve Martin is today, comfortable with his emotions enough to cry when reading the “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” script, and obviously enriched by being a father late in life. Comedian, actor, writer, father, husband, friend—Steve Martin is all these things, and more.

Qualities every Steve should aspire to.  And those who aren’t Steves should definitely enjoy.

Until next time…

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