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Steve Martin documentary offers a delightful study of a relatively private man

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

Steve Martin has avoided the biographical documentary treatment his entire showbiz career, a career that spans more than half a century, until now. Starting today, Apple TV+ presents a new biography - two, actually - directed by Morgan Neville, with home movies, private materials and intimate access provided by Martin himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STEVE! (MARTIN) A DOCUMENTARY IN 2 PIECES")

STEVE MARTIN: A comedian who thinks he's funny and isn't. I thought, I don't know, there's something there.

BIANCULLI: This new two-part biography from Apple TV+ has such an unwieldy title. STEVE! in capital letters, (martin) in parenthesis and in lower case, and the closing phrase, a documentary in 2 pieces But it sort of makes sense after you watch it all, because the two pieces, the two, 90-minute films, are fairly distinct entities. The first part documents the comedian's long, determined road to stardom, a 15-year trek that finally led to him being the biggest thing in stand-up, selling millions of copies of his comedy albums and filling large arenas with adoring fans. So that's the STEVE! part in loud, capital letters.

But the second piece is much more intimate and shows him as he lives and works today, looking back on his drive to stop stand-up entirely and branch out into movies and writing plays and books. It's the quieter, more contemplative movie of the two. So it's more the (martin) small case in parentheses portion. And even though many memorable bits from Steve Martin's career are barely hinted at - his "Saturday Night Live" performance of "King Tut," for example - both parts of this documentary contained treasures and, yes, insights. Steve Martin is such a relatively private celebrity that there are bound to be some of those, but it's what director Morgan Neville does with them that makes this such a delightful career study. Neville's directing credits include "20 Feet From Stardom," his Oscar-winning documentary film about backup singers, and "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," a hugely popular biography of children's TV host Fred Rogers. I was interviewed briefly in that film, but it was wonderful anyway.

In the first part of his Steve Martin study, Neville reveals the hard work that went into the development of Martin's on-stage persona as a goofy, self-obsessed, childlike entertainer. Surprisingly, it was born out of his college studies in advanced logic and philosophy and his love of such artists as Picasso, and he toiled at his act for years, often getting few laughs and even less money until "SNL" came along in the mid-'70s. Suddenly, Steve Martin was a superstar, a reversal of fortune he notes in his private journal with one single all-caps word - finally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: Banjo is such a happy instrument. It really is. It's a good thing for a comedian like me, and it's just a happy thing. You can't go, oh, (playing banjo, singing) murder and death and grief and sorrow.

OK, I want to do this last banjo tune, and we'll move on with the show. Can I get, like, a tight shot, maybe on my fingers on this, OK, Dave? Dave Wilson, the director. I'd like to start off with the tight shot, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: How did this thing undress? I thought we had it worked out. I'm sorry. OK, I do something else then. I can go with it. All right, you know what I'm saying?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It's just, you know, you ask for something. You think you're going to get it. It throws you off when you're a performer, professional, like I am. And I'm sorry if I look a little angry, but I guess I am, because, you know, it hurts you, you know what I'm saying? It hurts the people who are watching the show when me, the artist, comes out here, and I can't get - what? - a little cooperation, you know what I mean? I mean, I can't get a little help from the backstage crew. Excuse me.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: But in 1980, after just a few years of sold-out tours, Steve Martin pulled the plug, walked away from solo stand-up comedy and never went back. Instead, he pivoted to movies, a decision that concludes the first part of Neville's study and paves the way for part two.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STEVE! (MARTIN) A DOCUMENTARY IN 2 PIECES")

MARTIN: The act essentially was conceptual, and once the concept was understood, there was nothing more to develop. Like, I sort of created my own dead end.

BIANCULLI: Part two is my favorite. It's the one where Neville makes some extraordinary connections, like noting that Steve's father's reaction after seeing his son star in his first movie, "The Jerk," was the dismissive, he's no Charlie Chaplin, and how that painful remark surfaces decades later in one of Martin's plays, when an aspiring young architect breaks ground on his first building only to have his father remark, he's no Frank Lloyd Wright. And part two is the one where Neville makes the most room for comments and appearances from Martin's wife and friends, friends like Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey and Jerry Seinfeld, who listens to Martin's incredulity at having a late-career success with his streaming Hulu series "Only Murders In The Building."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STEVE! (MARTIN) A DOCUMENTARY IN 2 PIECES")

MARTIN: It's almost impossible. I'm 76.

JERRY SEINFELD: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you've got a hit television show.

SEINFELD: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's not - that doesn't happen.

SEINFELD: What's - no, it does.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SEINFELD: It does.

MARTIN: It does happen?

SEINFELD: Sure.

MARTIN: Who's 76 and has a hit television show?

SEINFELD: Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's true. Absolutely.

SEINFELD: I think I made that point.

BIANCULLI: Most of all, there's Martin Short, one of Steve Martin's longest and dearest friends, who not only co-stars with him in "Only Murders" but also in a series of comedy tours in which the two of them share the stage and pleasantly mock one another, just like they do in real life, when Neville captures them reading aloud from laptops, privately trying out possible new jokes for their act.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STEVE! (MARTIN) A DOCUMENTARY IN 2 PIECES")

MARTIN: I love a comedian's opening line because it sets the tone for the entire stupid show.

MARTIN SHORT: I think that's funny.

MARTIN: You know, we haven't performed in a year and a half, which will become obvious as the show goes on.

SHORT: I like I'm not nervous. I'm just unprepared. It's the same idea.

MARTIN: How many of you applauded because you thought I was dead? Ever had one of those moments when you walk into a room and forget why you're there?

SHORT: Well, it's funny.

MARTIN: OK, I know what you're thinking. These hearing aids make my ass look amazing.

SHORT: Right away, it's a premise of you're old. Maybe you can follow it up with a line about your prostate. Every night, I make sure I give a good night kiss to the three little ones that mean more to me than life itself - my two Emmys and my Tony.

MARTIN: I could hear that coming out of you 'cause it's not very good.

SHORT: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: This new Apple TV+ documentary about Steve Martin is very good. It's the study of a man who appears to have found more joy as he's gotten older. And the more you watch this profile, the more joy you'll find as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "JOY RIDE")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Sue Bird, the best point guard in the history of women's basketball. She won NCAA and WNBA championships and five Olympic gold medals. We'll talk about her career, playing in Russia during the off-season - her coach was murdered - deciding to retire and being engaged to retired soccer star Megan Rapinoe. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "JOY RIDE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "JOY RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.