Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces (A24)

A wonderful documentary by Morgan Neville explores the life and times of the fascinating and multidimensional Steve Martin.

Working mostly from voice overs and vintage film clips, the story starts with Martin confessing he recalls little before age 10.

While working at Disneyland selling newspapers as a kid, after 9am he was free to roam the park. He saw the magic show 100 times, which evolved into him doing magic everywhere and anywhere.

His sister reveals early the pervasive theme that will bubble to the surface over the course of the two part film: their father never showed any love or affection.

Magic alone was soon a dead end for Martin; comedy seemed more wide open. He moved over to Knotts Berry Farm where he could explore comedy in his teenage years.

Enrolling in college philosophy classes pushed him to delve into the components of comedy. Skinning his knees in tiny clubs let him push the various edges of comedy. Logic classes at UCLA followed, sending him deeper into comedic structure.

A cross country road trip to NYC further opened his eyes to performance possibilities. Balloons, magic and banjo found their way into his act by the time he was back in California, doing two shows a night at the Troubadour.

A few well placed Beach Boys deep cuts are very evocative, sprinkled among recollections from friends and fellow performers. Brian Wilson’s haunting a’cappella harmonies are a perfect counterpoint to Martin’s consternation.

Just as Martin was reaching the end of his rope with comedy, a writing gig on The Smothers Brothers TV show steered him away from a college philosophy professor direction.

But anxiety soon threatened to overshadow his efforts. Certainly the resoundingly bad reviews did not help. He got kicked off as opener for Ann-Margaret in Vegas, and Neville uses a great animation sequence to interpret the interplay between the voluptuous performer, her boyfriend Elvis Presley and the wide-eyed Martin.

Nearing the time point Martin had set as his deadline to succeed – age 30 – he decided he would only headline. Even with only 40 people in the audience, he began gaining traction.

College students were especially receptive. He stiffed at the Playboy Club in San Francisco, but it seems the bunny ears were a relic that remained in his schtick for years thereafter.

Martin also learned that the right audience mattered. At venues like The Ice House and The Boarding House he was a hit.

He’d finish his standup routine by exiting through the audience. And they’d follow him into the street.

He turned 30 and kept going. He killed on Johnny Carson and developed the role of an arrogant idiot.

The 1975 launch of Saturday Night Live put him into the company of like-minded performers and in front of a huge TV audience.

Soon he was headlining 7000 seat venues: sell out performances; 20,000 seat venues. Headlining tours. His was the first million selling comedy album. It shifted another 8 million units. Covers of Rolling Stone, Newsweek.

Moody Beach Boys harmonies continue to drift in and out, providing a melancholy counterpoint to Martin’s outward success.

Martin essentially became a rock star, outselling Fleetwood Mac in the same venue. He realized he was more the host at his performances.

By August 1980 he decided to get off the comedian train and jump on the movie train. He could reinvent himself.

“The Jerk” was the first stop on that train ride.

Part Two is the more satisfying half of the documentary, and explores the improbable success that follows as Martin publishes books, writes screenplays, stars in films, pens myriad live theatre productions and finds himself increasingly happier.

Because the entire documentary is so deserving, and especially because the second half is so well done, I will only mention two aspects related to the second half: first, the most salient quotation references “The thread of the difficulty of accomplishment” as fundamental to understanding Martin.

Second, no mention was made of the wonderful collaborations Martin had with Edie Brickell. She, of course, is married to Paul Simon, the subject of another wonderful documentary.

But more on that elsewhere.

Seek out this excellent A24 film.

Trailer here.




Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.