Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces

Year: 2024
Studio: A24
Director: Morgan Neville
Cast: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Jerry Seinfeld, Lorne Michaels, Selenz Gomez, Diane Keaton, Frank Oz, Tina Fey, Eric Idle

If you read Steve Martin's 2007 autobiography Born Standing Up you'll know most of what director Morgan Neville includes in the first instalment of this two part documentary. I don't remember as much from the book about how distant and disapproving his father was and how much of what drove Martin as a younger performer was partly a misguided attempt to win his father's approval.

When his voiceover talks about how he finally convinces his parents to come and see a show of his and his father reacts by saying he's no Jack Benny, the pitch in Martin's voice dips slightly and he pauses, the smallest inflection and rhythm in his speech covering up what might be a lifetime of pain.

But his early years working at Disneyland, his passion for magic, his realising later he was trying to make people laugh more than amaze them with illusion and his rapid rise to become the most successful stand up comedian of all time – selling out stadiums like he was a hit band – are all well documented.

It's all told with Martin's narration, a bit of archival footage from family home movies as well as recording of his shows and early SNL appearances and animations, and it makes an interesting point I hadn't considered.

Comedy at the time was edgy and political thanks to figures like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Andy Kaufman and Martin was doing something completely different – acting like an overgrown child and an idiot for obtuse laughs.

Like Star Wars in cinemas, he was a shinier, more fun artefact that came along in a time of comparative moral murk in the sociopolitical firmament and stood out, which might explain why fans latched on and made him a megastar the likes of which nobody had seen in stand-up.

The second part is much more about Martin himself as he is today, much of it featuring him on camera. He talks about his decision to leave stand-up and become a comic actor (also touched on in the book), the ups and downs of his movie career, his continuing relevance and sweetest of all, his ongoing friendship with The Three Amigos costar Martin Short.

Some of the best scenes in the whole documentary are of the two of them sitting around in Martin's Santa Barbara house or riding around the streets on pushbikes trying out good natured jibes for their upcoming stage show – the first time Martin had done live standup for decades.

Martin, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase were my favourite comic actors of the era and I desperately wanted them to do something together. Now, knowing a lot more about the personalities behind the scenes, I know it never would have happened.

Murray and Martin shared just one scene together in Little Shop of Horrors as the dentist and masochistic patient, and Chevy Chase supposedly can't get along with anyone – he and Murray reportedly still hate each other after coming to blows at SNL – so I'm not surprised it was Short that Martin formed a friendship with that lasted decades.

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