His Way: TV Review

The show-biz anecdotes roll on gloriously in this insiders’ look at living Hollywood legend Jerry Weintraub and if you don’t believe he’s a living legend just ask the man.

The famed Hollywood producer is as much a master raconteur as he is an entertainment entrepreneur in this Friar Club roast disguised as an HBO documentary.

His Way, filmmaker Douglas McGrath’s portrait of entertainment entrepreneur Jerry Weintraub, is not really a true biopic as it barely scratches the surface of its own subject. What it is though and what makes it utterly fascinating is a primer in storytelling. My God, can Jerry Weintraub tell a story. For that matter, his wife and friends —or at least those who agree to appear on camera in this HBO documentary — are nearly his equal. The show-biz stories get better and better as the movie haphazardly charts Weintraub’s rise from music manager and promoter to film producer.

Weintraub can start a story with “I get a call one day” and you’re hooked. The story moves on to a meeting, builds to a deal, then a complication or a moment of truth arises and finally a triumph occurs in the world of music or film. Someone got outfoxed or perhaps the truth got bent a little, but what perfectly shaped, brilliantly narrated stories these are! Best of all they star people such as Elvis Presley, Frank SinatraJohn DenverGeorge Clooney and even former President George H.W. Bush.

His Way is the ultimately talking-head doc and you wouldn’t want it any other way: You can absolutely see the stories, taking place in your head, as Weintraub’s voice rolls on and on so mellifluously with that slight Brooklyn accent he never quite lost

No wonder Weintraub entitled his recently published autobiography “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead.”

Perhaps the key story here is the one about his father Sam, a jewelry dealer. Sam returns from a trip abroad with a large star sapphire that is borderline worthless. Yet he polishes it, dubs it the “Star of Ardaban” and is met at every train station by an armed guard. After the local press does interviews, Sam invites jewelers to his hotel to examine the gem. Meanwhile he sells them everything else in his jewel case.

Here is a lesson well learned by a very young boy. Later, Jerry Weintraub will sell himself as a William Morris agent — he works in the mailroom — to the MCA music department and wind up working for the legendary Lew Wasserman despite an embarrassing incident.

He calls Presley’s manager Colonel Parker daily for a solid year before he secures an agreement to promote Presley on a road tour. He then promises the King that no seat at a concert will ever go unfilled. When he comes up 5,000 seats short at a matinee in Miami Beach Auditorium, he gets the sheriff to bring inmates to remove those 5,000 seats only to bring them back for the evening concert. So when he tells Presley that every seat is taken at the matinee, he isn’t exactly lying.

Of all the talking heads, only CAA’s Bryan Lourd hints at a dark, tougher side. Hints, mind you. He never really reveals anything. But you certainly know after looking at the doc that you’d want JW on your side in any fight and not the other way around.

A story is told, approvingly, that when John Denver, probably his biggest act from a monetary point of view, fired him as his manager, Weintraub refused to ask why. If it was over, then he had no interest in knowing why. But there’s another way of looking at this: Weintraub probably knew good and well why Denver wanted him out of his life and didn’t want to have to acknowledge it in front of any future documentarian’s camera. Denver himself complained in his autobiography of having to “bend my principles” while working with Weintraub. It may all go back to the “Star of Ardaban.”

McGrath amuses himself by cutting back and forth between Weintraub and his wife of 45 years, singer Jane Morgan, telling the same story, alternating between the two from line to line in telling a story that has resided for so long in the couple’s repertoire. The story about Weintraub’s mother finally accepting his non-Jewish wife into the family is classic.

Weintraub actually took Morgan on as a client first but as he boasts, “We worked together professionally for at least an hour-and-a-half before we slept together.” Things get even more interesting when many years and four children later, she comes home one day to find him in bed with a young beauty.

In fact, the Weintraubs have an odd but universally known relationship. The two have never divorced, yet Weintraub has lived with girlfriend Susie Ekins for many years. On camera, everyone from Julia Roberts to Brad Pitt try to puzzle that one out. Most of the men state, somewhat admiringly, “I couldn’t pull it off.” Barbara Bush, seated next to her husband, simply declares, “I’ll kill George Bush if he does that.”

Weintraub’s career and life are too rich — and clearly too complicated — for a single doc to do anything more than leave an impression. As it is, most of the talking heads other than his brothers haven’t known him that long. Clooney, for instance, tells a story he could only know second-hand.

The film may shortchange his filmmaking acumen. He throws a party, meets director Robert Altman and the next thing you know he’s producing Nashville. He made such successful films as DinerThe Karate Kid, Oh, God!Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the remake of Oceans 11, a crummy film his old client Sinatra made that he always thought he could improve upon. He did. The doc never even mentions he once headed United Artists.

The failure of the Weintraub Entertainment Group, an ambitious venture meant to produce feature films, television show and even Broadway plays, is dealt with superficially. Looking gloomy for the only time on camera, Weintraub says he personally lost $30 million and [VU1] the film moves on without much examination of the whys and wherefores. The doc then ends on an upbeat note of the Ocean’s 11 success.

When everyone behind the camera is an admirer, including Ocean’s director Steven Soderbergh, the doc’s exec producer, then you won’t get much introspection. But, boy, do you get stories told with the vivid sense of drama and imagery that old Homer would no doubt admire.

Tech credits on the film, which incorporates everything from sumptuous archival footage to Weintraub family home movies from the ‘50s, is smooth and excellent.

Air date: Monday 9:30 p.m., April 4 (HBO)
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films. Polsky Films in association with Consolidated Documentaries
Director, writer: Douglas McGrath
Producers: Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, Graydon Carter
Executive producers: Audrey Rosenberg, Steven Soderbergh
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Judy Becker
87 minutes