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Apple's Steve Martin Doc Is a Surprisingly Intimate Look at a Man Who's Hard to Know

Martin's stand-up persona mocked the idea of sincerity, but he expressed much deeper emotions in his film roles.
  • Steve! (martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Steve! (martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Back in the 1970s, when Steve Martin became a big enough stand-up comedy star to play arenas, the magazine and newspaper profiles about him would sometimes run through his pre-fame highlights, mentioning as a passing fun fact that he used to work at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. But in Martin’s 2007 memoir Born Standing Up — and now in Morgan Neville’s Apple TV+ documentary Steve! (martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces — those amusement park years are framed as more formative. A place of excessive artificiality, where everyone play-acts at being happy until they actually start to feel it? Isn’t that the Steve Martin story?

    Neville has divided Steve! (martin) into two parts; and unlike a lot of multipart docs, those divisions aren’t arbitrary. In the first chapter, “Then,” Neville traces Martin’s rise from theme park entertainer to comic icon, using old footage — much of it quite rare — to cover the roughly 15-year grind of Martin trying to find any kind of audience for his particular brand of absurdity. There are no new on-camera interviews in “Then.” Martin and some of his colleagues just reflect in voice-over, while Neville raids the archives for video and audio.

    Chapter 2, “Now,” changes the approach. In “Now,” Martin is on-camera often, in scenes that capture his life as a septuagenarian. He’s in a loving marriage now; and he has a young daughter he dotes on. His TV series Only Murders in the Building is a big hit; and he’s enjoying a fruitful creative partnership with his best friend Martin Short. After spending most of his career as an emotionally distant workaholic, Martin has become unexpectedly jubilant.

    “Then” and “Now” could be seen as two separate films, since they’re so structurally different and are both feature-length (with each running just over 90 minutes). Of the two, “Then” is better. Its focus is tighter and it’s boosted by all of the hilarious clips of Martin at the peak of his stand-up powers. For fans of Born Standing Up especially, it’s fascinating to see how Martin slowly and stubbornly constructed the act that by the end of the 1970s would be a box-office blockbuster.

    The journey to the top was long, but steady. While working at Disney and Knott’s, Martin learned how to delight people with magic, balloon animals, banjo-picking and dumb jokes. He also learned that people loved to laugh at mistakes and idiocy. So he started playing to the counterculture crowd on the nightclub circuit, by doing an over-the-top parody of the kind of smarmy showbiz song-and-dance man who tries too hard and frequently fails. Martin honed that schtick while opening for rock bands and doing guest shots on TV variety shows. Through repetition and obsessive note-taking, he figured out what made audiences feel good. At the height of ’70s malaise, Martin gave Americans permission to be silly.

    “Now” tells the rest of the story, from a different angle. Unlike the linear “Then,” “Now” is sketchier, alternating scenes of Martin’s daily life in the 2020s with disconnected anecdotes from his up-and-down movie career. If the main thrust of “Then” is the tale of a driven young comedian pursuing and finding fame at the expense of his personal life, then “Now” is about an ambitious artist finding increasingly less satisfaction in his work before realizing that what he really craves is companionship. On the whole, “Now” feels more like a conventional celebrity-approved biography, with some of Martin’s famous friends — including Short, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey and Eric Idle — contributing glowing testimonials.The analysis in “Then” is a little sharper; in “Now,” it’s a little sappier.

    But the two parts of Steve! (martin) work well together as a closer look at a man who has long avoided scrutiny. Even when Martin was an in-demand guest for late-night talk show hosts like David Letterman and Johnny Carson, he often wrote and rehearsed conceptual bits to do on their shows, to avoid answering questions about himself. Martin served time on writing staffs for a few late ’60s and early ’70s variety shows, hanging around his comedy peers. But he had few real friends. According to this documentary, Tommy Smothers once said, “Talking to Steve Martin is like talking to nobody.”

    Neville and Martin offer some pop-psych reasons for his reticence, focusing primarily on his difficult relationship with his father, who was hyper-critical and rarely affectionate. A big part of the miracle of Martin’s happiness as seen in “Now” is that he finally has the kind of warm family life he missed as a child. (Yet in depicting that warmth, Martin still deflects a bit, by having scenes of him interacting with his daughter rendered as cartoons, illustrated by Harry Bliss.)

    The more illuminating through line for this documenary’s two parts though is the idea that Martin is part of a line of Southern California pop artists who have tried to capture the sunniness and shadow of their home. The doc’s score by Darian Sahanaja — a frequent Brian Wilson collaborator — gets across that vibe, evoking the Beach Boys’ blend of childlike enthusiasm and unshakeable melancholy.

    Martin’s stand-up persona mocked the idea of sincerity, while as an actor in movies like Pennies From Heaven, Roxanne, Parenthood, L.A. Story, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, he expressed deeper emotions via fictional characters. In both cases, there’s always been a layer of fakeness, which Martin’s fans have come to see as him just reflecting the world as he’s lived in since he was a teenager hawking souvenirs in the Magic Kingdom. It’s a cry of genuine yearning, rendered in plastic.

    Steve! (martin): a Documentary in 2 Pieces premieres March 29 on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.

    TOPICS: Steve Martin