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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This Sunday and Monday, the PBS arts biography series "American Masters" presents a two-part, four-hour special called "Woody Allen: a Documentary." Our TV critic David Bianculli thinks it is very special.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Woody Allen: A Documentary" is the result, though not the culmination, of three very long and distinguished careers. First, there's Robert Weide, the writer/director whose examination of Woody's life and art follows similar, and similarly impressive, documentaries on the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce. Second, there's Susan Lacy, who created the PBS "American Masters" series 25 years ago, overseeing and nurturing brilliant programs on everyone from Buster Keaton and Jerome Robbins to John Lennon and Bob Dylan. And finally, there's Woody Allen himself, who cooperated in the making of this documentary because of his respect for both Weide and "American Masters." In lesser hands, "Woody Allen: a Documentary" might have the pondering weight of a career achievement salute, but not here.

Part of it is timing: During the year and a half Weide followed Allen around, and filmed and interviewed him, Allen happened to release "Midnight in Paris," which may be his best comedy film in decades. And the other reason this documentary is so good is because it's so interested in process, in not only what Woody Allen has done, but why, and how and even how he thinks about his own work even as he's writing and filming it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WOODY ALLEN: THE DOCUMENTARY")

WOODY ALLEN: Writing is the great life because you wake up in the morning and you write in your room. You know, in the room, everything's great, you know, because you don't have to deliver. So you write it and you imagine it's "Citizen Kane" or, you know, everything you write is great. But when you have to then take it out and do it, then reality sets in. When all your schemes about making a masterpiece are reduced to: I'll prostitute myself any way I have to to survive this catastrophe.

BIANCULLI: There's so much ground to cover when dealing with the life and works of Woody Allen that even four hours don't seem like enough. I would have appreciated more coverage of his TV work, including his brilliant 1969 variety special with Billy Graham and Candace Bergen - yes, you heard me right - and his 1972 PBS comedy special that poked fun at Richard Nixon so successfully that it was never aired.

But even on the TV front, "Woody Allen: a Documentary" is generous and surprising. It includes not only his talk-show appearance with Dick Cavett, but an episode of a forgotten variety series called "Hippodrome" from 1966, in which Woody Allen actually climbs in a boxing ring and boxes a kangaroo. From the movies, there are outtakes and shots of Allen giving direction to his actors and stories of major rewrites, like the discarded first half of "Sleeper."

About his artistic process, we see the portable typewriter on which Woody Allen has clacked out every movie script, play, and New Yorker piece since he began writing. We're also shown his key inspirations, from Bob Hope to Ingmar Bergman. And about his personal life, we learn a lot - though not everything. The trickiest terrain is the part about Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Andre Previn and Mia Farrow.

Farrow subsequently became Allen's long-time girlfriend, until Allen shocked much of the world by confessing his love for, and eventually marrying, Soon-Yi. The documentary covers that scandal, and later prominently features Soon-Yi in footage of Allen's recent overseas tour in which he plays clarinet with his jazz band. But it seems to race through that portion of Allen's life as quickly as possible, and understandably so.

That's not to say this character study avoids Allen's character, or what shaped it - quite the contrary. Weide takes Allen back to his childhood home in Brooklyn, which triggers all sorts of recollections and realizations. And the film also includes one piece of home-movie footage that's almost uncomfortably revealing. Woody Allen, in 1986, stood behind the camera and interviewed his own mother, Nettie Konigsberg, to record her stories and memories. Listen to what she says about her son.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME MOVIE)

NETTIE KONIGSBERG: You were a very bright child. You spoke young. You were very young when you spoke. You were always running, whether it was the street or the house or your room. You never stayed put for five minutes. I didn't know how to handle that type of a child. You were too active and too much of a child for me.

I wasn't that good to you because I was very strict with you, which I regret because I think if I hadn't been that strict, you might have been a more - a not so impatient - you might have been a - what should I say? Not better. You're a good person. But maybe softer, maybe warmer.

BIANCULLI: Yikes. You hear from plenty of other people in "Woody Allen: a Documentary" as well: Diane Keaton and Louise Lasser, Mariel Hemingway and Scarlett Johansson, Martin Scorsese and Dick Cavett, Sean Penn and Larry David, and so many more. But the film clips, more than anything, steal this show. The bank robbery scene from "Take the Money and Run." The translation scene from "Bananas." The ending and the beautiful Gershwin music from "Manhattan," and so many, many scenes from "Annie Hall." Part 1 of this "American Masters" documentary takes us through "Manhattan" and "Stardust Memories. And Part 2 covers the rest, up to and including the most recent, most delightful "Midnight in Paris."

"Woody Allen: a Documentary" is a smart, sometimes serious study of a smart, sometimes serious filmmaker. It rivals HBO's recent two-part George Harrison documentary as the best TV biography of the season, and, like that one, deserves to be seen, recorded and added to your personal video library. It's that good, and holds up that well to repeated viewings.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. He reviewed the PBS "American Masters" special "Woody Allen: a Documentary." You'll find links to some of the clips David mentioned on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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