SXSW Review: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

"One of the best documentaries you will see all year."


Just over a year ago the Late Night kerfuffle proved to be the single largest, best-covered behind-the-scenes television war in modern history. What began as a potential career killer for Conan O'Brien would catapult him into super-stardom. Through wit, grace, and the sudden support of a long dormant (but quite rabid) fandom, O'Brien spun the disaster into career (and comedy) gold, going from late night television host to comedy rock star. Upon exiting NBC, he took his show on the road in what would become a legendary concert tour titled The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. Selling out instantly, second dates were immediately added (which also sold out), and a grueling tour schedule would first build up and ultimately break down Conan O'Brien, wearing him near to the nub.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop isn't a concert film; it is a harsh light shone on the life and personality of one of our great, modern entertainers. While the film incorporates sections of his live show, it is primarily about the backstage goings-ons, from the writing and choreography of it to the after-parties, long bus rides, and endless meet and greets that plague any touring show. This isn't a celebration of Conan O'Brien, it is a slice of his life, warts and all, with so many warts in fact that several reviews of the film have already mentioned that die-hard fans might not want to see this side of Conan.

You see, as it turns out, Conan O'Brien is not a robot with strings on his hips; he is a very real, living, breathing human being who was very hurt by the decision to torpedo his career. He's a man who loves his fans dearly, but acknowledges that many of them ask way too much of him. Conan gets cranky, bitchy, even on occasion a little whiney -- just like the rest of us; only this time, there is a camera around for every tantrum, grumble, or self-deprecating jibe. As a documentary, it is fascinating, a deep, scathing look at the cult of celebrity and what one man will put himself through to maintain it. As a promotional piece, it seems at first to degrade the O'Brien brand before actually launching him into the ranks of comedy legend.

This movie is everything no one ever really tells you about the life of celebrity. It is the madness that surrounds them at all times, the helplessness of having to suffer through things your "people" arrange for you without properly telling you what you're agreeing to, and the loneliness of never actually having a moment alone. It is a film about your days off not actually being days off and what spending that much time on the road can do to your sanity. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop doesn't paint a pretty picture -- it never says "look how awesome it is to live in the lap of luxury!" Instead, it shows just how hard it is to be nice even on the best of days.

Is this a documentary for fans? There certainly is enough Conan to go around, so I think they'll like it. I do know that it will certainly pull a guilt trip on any number of celebrity hounds out there and show them what their over-exuberant pursuit of fandom does to the people they worship. As a film, this stands as one of the best things I've seen this year. It is a remarkably blunt, perfectly edited slice of celebrity life that will cause people to reconsider their attitudes toward fame. Too honest to be mere promotion, this is one of the best documentaries you will see all year. A must-see for anyone who longs to understand the inner workings of the entertainment industry.

Grade: A