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A documentary that is more than celebrity image management

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The barrage of celebrity documentaries that have arrived in the wake of (and seemingly inspired by the success of) 2020’s “The Last Dance” tend to be exercises in image management. Unlike the dishier genre of celebrity memoir, these are scrapbooks for the screen. “STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces” on Apple TV+ avoids some of those pitfalls better than most.

Not entirely. Director Morgan Neville dutifully films Martin and collaborator Harry Bliss as they work on a 2022 memoir that tells the story of Martin’s career through cartoon anecdotes, and these moments serve no other purpose than to advertise the book itself.

But as a project, “STEVE!” has more in common with Judd Apatow’s absorbing multipart “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” from 2018. Neville divides the documentary into two 90-minute halves. The first part delves into Martin’s formative experiences and his career as a standup, and he appears only in archival footage or voiceover. In the second part, he’s on camera and we see him in the present day, ruminating about his many reinventions — movie actor, screenwriter, playwright, musician — as well as late-in-life fatherhood.

He is most introspective when describing the evolution of his stage act. If comedy is about building and releasing tension through set-up and punchline, “I thought, what if I created tension and never released it?” That would mean “the audience would eventually have to pick their own place to laugh.”

We see Martin on stage wearing what would become his trademark prop — an arrow through the head— and he turns to the audience: “Do I look stupid?”

“It was aggressively stupid,” says fellow comic Martin Mull. “And aggressive stupidity, you can’t ignore it.”

Though Martin first adopted the more scraggly look of the late ’60s, it never really fit. He says everything changed when he cut his hair and put on a suit: “The act looked juvenile. That’s why it helped when my hair turned gray a little bit. You always had to think that a grown man was doing this.”

Steve Martin performing on stage early in his career, as seen in the documentary "Steve! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces." (Apple TV+)
Steve Martin performing on stage early in his career, as seen in the documentary “STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces.” (Apple TV+)

This was also how Martin distinguished himself from his peers. So much comedy in the ’60s and ’70s was political. Martin went in the opposite direction and he frames it as a desire to do something different. But you also wonder if there’s an aversion to getting his hands dirty. The film doesn’t touch on this directly, but later, when he and longtime friend Martin Short are going over material for an upcoming tour, Martin shakes his head “no” at one joke: “We don’t want to get that political.”

“Well, we have to get a little political,” Short says.

“Oh, that’s right,” Martin replies drolly, “you’re trying to retire.”

Short doesn’t miss a beat: “No, I’m just not fraught with fear.”

Martin takes this jab in good humor — because that’s how it’s delivered — but it’s a piercing observation all the same.

Neville’s documentaries include “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and what he captures here is a compelling dichotomy between the warmth and faux guilelessness of Martin’s persona as a comedian and his reticent personality. He is closed off and shy and can be difficult to connect with. Maybe some of that grew out of a tense relationship with his father and a household where affection wasn’t demonstrative. (Martin grew up in a two-parent home but has almost nothing to say about his mother.) Even people who have worked with Martin have almost no sense of him as a private person. Sometimes that can come off as cold. “I wasn’t mean to people,” he says. “I was removed. I was somewhere else in my head.” He describes his father as a man who could be withholding and cruel and perhaps Martin decided it was safer to retreat into himself, a personality trait that would become a default for his social interactions as an adult.

This was apparent even early in his career. In an old clip, an interviewer says, “I get the sense that you really are quite buttoned up and nobody’s going to get too close to Steve Martin. And yet your persona is ‘I’m the wild and crazy guy and I’ll do anything.’” Martin just nods a little. “Yeah.”

Or as Tina Fey puts it: “There’s a longing at the center of pretty much everybody he shows us.” That’s a good use of a celebrity interview, because it gets at something essential about the undercurrent driving so much of Martin’s work. Jerry Seinfeld shows up briefly to add nothing, which feels like Neville becoming too enamored with the stars who orbit Martin’s world. At one point he asks: Why make a documentary? “I see it as an antidote to the sort of anodyne interviews, generic things I’ve talked about a million times,” Martin tells him, and that sentiment comes through.

There’s an unspoken subtext, as well. Nearly two decades ago, he found intimacy in a marriage that appears to be quietly happy and maybe now, in his late 70s, he’s willing to do this vulnerable-making, semi-cringey thing, which is both navel-gazing but thoughtful. Fame does not equal intelligence — in fact, it usually doesn’t — but Martin is the real deal. He’s complicated and the documentary captures that in all the right ways. There’s a sensitive side to him which includes a wincing relationship to critique (of his work, or anyone else’s) and maybe that’s borne out of steeling himself from his father’s disappointment. But it coexists with his more acerbic side and an understanding of the kind of emotions — envy and competitiveness and pointless striving — that can boil beneath the surface. In his 1996 play “Wasp,” a character asks: Do you know what a luxury item is? “A luxury item is a thing you have that annoys other people that you have it.”

He used to get great satisfaction from his work, he says, and it’s where he derived a lot of his self-respect. And then he realized, “unless I was continually working, I felt like people wouldn’t like me. And there’s an emptiness left and it’s traumatic.”

The artist Eric Fischl talks in metaphorical terms about what has fueled much of Martin’s work. When most people have a pebble in their shoe, he says, they take it off and shake the pebble out. “But artists keep the pebble there and make art out of it until finally it stops hurting your foot so much.”

“Steve! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces” — 3 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: Apple TV+

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.



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