Jerry Weintraub has never been credited as the writer or director of a film or television show, but he’s unquestionably a master storyteller.
The larger-than-life producer is at the center of the documentary “His Way,” which premieres on HBO on Monday (April 4) night. And were Weintraub the only master storyteller involved with “His Way,” it would still be worth watching for entertainment devotees. But Weintraub stories seem to bring out the best in other expert storytellers and “His Way” also features friends and admirers like George Clooney, Matt Damon, Ellen Barkin and, very oddly, George and Barbara Bush recounting and embellishing Weintraub narratives.
The dominant voice in “His Way” may be Weintraub”s, but it”d be called “My Way,” if not for the theoretical authorial hand of Douglas McGrath, who wrote and directed the doc. As steady and thorough and perceptive and funny as Weintraub is, McGrath seems to be just holding on for dear life. Unless a project is strictly autobiographical, you should never feel like the subject of a documentary is the one pulling the strings and make no mistake: Jerry Weintraub feels like he’s the guy pulling the strings on “His Way,” which hinders the film, particularly in its second half. That doesn’t mean “His Way” isn’t an entertaining 83-minute documentary, but it’s an entertaining 83-minute documentary, rather than being an enlightening film that’s anywhere near as perceptive as its subject matter.
More after the break…
Although best known as a film producer today, Weintraub began his career as a Broadway Danny Rose style manager and booking agent and branched into music promotion when, on chutzpah alone, he masterminded successful comeback tours for Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
Weintraub was a self-made man and you probably wouldn’t want anybody boasting about his ingenuity, both in business and in wooing and winning his wife, other than him. The early biographical anecdotes are interesting, but “His Way” really gets going once Weintraub can begin spinning his Elvis and Sinatra tales, which are marvelously random shaggy dog stories that meander and circle back on themselves, but always land the punch line. As Weintraub goes on and on — he’s entertaining enough that you never worry that he’s going to have a point — McGrath is mostly just pasting up archival footage behind him, rarely interrupting the flow. Early highlights include the lead-up to Sinatra’s The Main Event concert at MSG, a blundered Elvis matinee in Miami and memories of his head butting with John Denver. Yes, we all think of John Denver as being a pretty chill guy, but his clashes with Weintraub are so notorious that George Clooney can do lengthy, detailed Weintraub/Denver stories from memory.
With “Nashville” and then “Diner” and “The Karate Kid,” Weintraub transitioned from music into a blockbuster feature film magnate. The Brooklyn kid went Hollywood and more of his colleagues, underlings and collaborators get to have a place in the narrative. His rise in the movies comes with great stories of a producer who was always willing to stick up for artists. So many of the people who worked for and with him show up to pay their respects to his drive and dedication. He was at the top of the world. Then he became over-invested and overextended through the Weintraub Entertainment Group, went bankrupt and lost more than $30 million.
It at that point, that you realize either Weintraub doesn’t want to talk about the dark years, or McGrath has no desire to press him, because there’s a long spell on Weintraub’s IMDB bio where he was barely making movies, or the movies he was making were awful bombs. You’d think this part of his career would be a meaningful part in his professional arc. You’d think Weintraub would have stories about wandering through the desert, metaphorically. You’d mostly be wrong. The documentary skips straight to “Ocean’s 11.” That’s great for entertainment value, because Clooney and Damon are ruthless with their impressions and stories of on-set and off-set pranks, but it prevents you from getting a sense of Weintraub’s approach to adversity. No less than Julia Roberts calls Weintraub “one lucky motherf***er,” but I think we might respect him more if we delved more deeply into the moments he was less than lucky.
It’s not that McGrath avoids Weintraub’s less flattering aspects, but even things that might be depicted as negatives through other eyes are treated with a wink and a nudge. Weintraub’s personal life is… complicated. He fell in love with Jane Morgan and married her in 1965, but their relationship is… complicated. I’m not going to go into details here, because McGrath treats that aspect of Weintraub’s life as a surprise twist that he saved for the last act. It’s an odd storytelling decision on the director’s part, but you can tell that he just wasn’t sure how to handle this side of his subject. And nobody in Weintraub’s life is sure how to handle it either. There’s a lot of nervous laughter, shrugs and “If it were anybody but Jerry…” justifications.
If McGrath seems a little too passive in other places, I actually liked the weird late revelation. It comes at a point at which I’d decided I knew exactly what the rest of the story was going to be and injected some unpredictability into the equation. Or maybe it’s just a confirmation of the message of the rest of the documentary: Jerry Weintraub tells his story himself and his story is a message of a man who succeeded, failed and succeeded again by doing things his way and his way alone. So why would his personal life be any different? And why would you think a documentary about his life would be marked by fingerprints other than his own? There are no compromises in Weintraub’s life and the compromises in “His Way” appear to have been made by McGrath.
It’s still engaging and fun stuff.
“His Way” premieres on HBO on Monday (April 4) night at 9:00 p.m.