erik lundegaard

Monday April 29, 2024

Movie Review: Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces (2024)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A few memories.

After Steve Martin hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the second time, so around Feb. 1977, I took the bus with my friend Peter to buy comics at Shinders in downtown Minneapolis. There was a shoe store across the street that we never went to, but on this day, for some reason, we stopped in. I think Peter needed something. And we began telling the salesgirl about this ad plan we’d concocted about how some shoe store—hey, maybe this one!—could team up with Steve Martin on a Happy Feet campaign. We probably did the little insane dance, too. Poor salesgirl. She didn’t know from Steve Martin (“Who's Steve Martin?” she said) and we didn’t know how the world worked. 

That same year (yes, just checked: Nov. 11, 1977), my brother Chris and I went to a Steve Martin concert at the 5,000-seat Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus. I think we got Star-Tribune seats, because we were second row center. At one point, Steve asked for a volunteer with a big voice from the audience, and while I dithered in my head (“Oooh, I don’t know, that’s really putting myself out there…”), my brother shot his hand up. And was chosen. He talked with Steve Martin:

Steve: What’s your name?
Chris: Chris Lundegaard!
Steve [chuckles]: No, what’s your full name?

(I think that’s how it went. I wish Chris were here to corroborate.)

Here's why he was chosen: Steve had Chris pick a card, the King of Hearts, and Steve said he wanted everyone to concentrate on the card; and when the vibes were just right, Chris should shout as loud as he could, “KING OF HEARTS, COME DOWN AND DANCE!!” I think it was a kind of satire on the paranormal shit popular at the time. Because after my brother shouted the line, Steve took the card and danced it down his arm and around the stage, making dopey “Doop-de-doo” sounds.

A month later Steve made the cover of Rolling Stone (“Bananaland’s Top Banana”), and the following spring he was on the cover of Newsweek (“A Wild and Crazy Guy”). His album “Let’s Get Small” (1977) went platinum and his follow-up “Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978) went double platinum, while “King Tut,” reached No. 17 on the billboard singles chart. And suddenly all the kids in my ninth-grade class were huge fans. In English, I remember Tim F. imitating him ad nauseum: “Wild and crazy,” he’d say. “Wild and crazy.” He made the last word sound like creh-see. It drove me nuts. Guy was late to the party, his imitation sucked, and girls liked him better?

Anyway, that’s how Steve Martin broke from my perspective. “Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces” is how he broke from his. Basically, he kept butting his head against the massive indifference of the world until slowly it began to crack and something trickled out. And then it became a deluge.

Chaplin no Chaplin
Here’s that journey, per the doc:

  • Young Steve had an early visceral need to be on stage
  • His magic act seemed a dead end unless he added comedy
  • He liked a girl who told him to go to college, where he applied the methodology of philosophy to stand-up comedy and became an early disruptor; he broke down the Bob Hope-ian elements, removing the cue to laugh; there was tension without release
  • His onstage persona shifted to a parody of the overconfident untalented showman
  • He struggled for 10 years

He struggled, in part, because he was doing the opposite of what everyone else was doing. This was a conscious decision. Everyone’s doing politics, so I won’t. Everyone’s serious, so I’ll be silly. Everyone dresses down, I’ll dress up. I’m curious what drove that urge. It’s so smart.

“I always thought of him as the door out of the’60s,” a talking head says in Part I. “You could be silly again.” Yes, but there were a lot of such doors. Our most popular TV shows went from working class and multi-ethnic (“All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son”) to white and cleavage-filled (“Three’s Company,” “Charlie’s Angels”), while our most popular movies went from serious and scary (“The Godfather,” “The Exorcist”) to safe and uplifting (“Star Wars,” “Superman”). That was the zeitgeist. That was the wave. Steve anticipated it and rode it. 

So why did he quit doing standup after he’d succeeded beyond his or anyone’s wildest dreams? When he’d become, per Jerry Seinfeld, the most popular comedian ever? I always assumed he got tired of it. But he also admits he didn’t have anywhere to take it. He’d spent 10 years creating this persona, this concept, and now everyone knew it. Audiences repeated it back to him. He didn’t see a path in standup—except out.

That’s part I—his search, rise and supernova status—and it’s a particular kind of documentary: historical footage and talking heads as voiceovers. We hear Jerry Seinfeld, Lorne Michaels and Adam Gopnik; we don’t see them.

Part II is a different particular kind of documentary. It’s recent footage, filmed by documentarian Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”), of Steve living his life with his wife, a former New Yorker fact-checker, and their daughter, represented as a stick figure to protect her. He makes a poached egg. Martin Short comes over and they gibe each other and then work on their routines in which they gibe each other. They go to the dry cleaners, they go for a bike ride, they work on “Only Murders in the Building.” It’s not exactly wild and crazy, but it’s sweet and sometimes funny, and anyway Steve was never a wild and crazy guy. One of the big reveals of his great memoir, “Born Standing Up,” was, rather than being the hippest dude in the land, which is what he seemed to us in 1977, he was the squarest. That’s underscored here.

Steve talks through his post-standup life: the movies, the relationships, the depression. He recounts seeing “Flashdance” in a movie theater in London in 1983, and one of the characters, a standup, says he wants to be Steve Martin, and Steve Martin, watching, thought, “No, you don’t.” If part I is the search for success, part II is the search for happiness. It’s less deluge than revelation: “Oh, it’s right over here. I should’ve looked over here before.”

A lot of his unhappiness stems from his relationship with his father, Glenn, who was, like many fathers of the day, emotionally distant. He was also wary of the path his son was taking. “I always thought my father was a little embarrassed by me,” Steve says. “He couldn’t quite be proud of an unconventional showbiz act that he didn’t quite understand.” It’s a reasonable concern but oddly it doesn’t go away even when the son becomes a phenomenon. After the premiere of “The Jerk,” family and friends went out to dinner to celebrate, and one of Steve’s friends asked Glenn what he thought of seeing his son in the movie. “Well,” Glenn said, “he’s no Charlie Chaplin.”

Watching, I wondered if we all weren’t a little hard on Steve Martin’s movie career. There was this expectation that because he’d remade standup comedy he would remake movie comedy, too, and that’s a big ask. It’s a bit Paul McCartney after The Beatles. “What's this Ram shit?” Interestingly, or poignantly, Martin did become one of the most gifted physical comedians since Chaplin, particularly with his mid-80s output: “All of Me” and “Roxanne,” in particular. A personal favorite of mine was his insanely joyous and childish dance after his son makes a catch in a little league baseball game in “Parenthood.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen it without laughing. 

The wave
What I’d like to know that Neville doesn’t ask? Did Martin anticipate anything with film the way he did with standup? Did he try to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing? Or is that not possible in such a collaborative and established medium, where failure means millions of dollars rather than a rough night?

There’s no inkling in the doc of this grand irony, either: The less-serious, post-sixties wave Steve rode to massive success never ebbed; and it kind of stranded him in the 1990s as he tried to smarten up—doing essays for The New Yorker, Mamet on film and Beckett on stage. When, that is, he wasn’t doing meh reboots of “Sgt. Bilko,” “Cheaper By the Dozen” or “The Pink Panther.” (I know Scorsese talks about doing one of them and one for yourself, but those are some extremes.)

I’m also curious why the doc contains no mention of Carl Reiner, Robin Williams and Bernadette Peters. I could’ve used some discussion there rather than more shots of Steve putzing around the house. But we do get a poignant remembrance of a John Candy speech that was cut from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” and that, even to this day, moves Martin to tears.

Is that his most beloved film? Seems like it. 

  RT (Critics) RT (Audience) IMDb Rating
1 Parenthood Planes, Trains and Automobiles Planes, Trains and Automobiles
2 Planes, Trains and Automobiles Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
3 L.A. Story The Jerk The Spanish Prisoner
4 Little Shop of Horrors The Spanish Prisoner Little Shop of Horrors
5 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Little Shop of Horrors Parenthood
6 The Spanish Prisoner Parenthood The Jerk
7 Roxanne L.A. Story Grand Canyon
8 All of Me Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
9 Pennies from Heaven Father of the Bride All of Me
10 The Jerk Grand Canyon L.A. Story

I am surprised that “Roxanne” is so ill-thought-of while “Grand Canyon,” which felt insufferable to me three decades ago, makes the cut. Maybe I should rewatch some of these.

Posted at 07:10 AM on Monday April 29, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2024  
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