This review was written following the International Film Festival of Boston.
A few weekends ago I was able to catch a screening of David Chen and Stephen Tobolowsky’s The Primary Instinct, which premieres tonight and tomorrow at the Seattle International Film Festival. Based on the highly successful podcast The Tobolowsky Files, the movie is a concert documentary in which Stephen recounts stories of his life, finding existential meaning in a variety of seemingly disparate stories. The result is a fascinating experience unique to Tobolowsky, and one that must be witnessed to be understood.
I must begin with the disclaimer that I have been a fan of The Tobolowsky Files for years. I have attended a live performance in the past, and had high expectations going into the movie.
That being said, the film completely blew me away. As anyone who has listened to the podcast knows, Stephen is an incredibly masterful storyteller. He has a wealth of life experiences, from his childhood and the Dangerous Animals Club to his successes and follies in love and relationships, from his theatrical days on Broadway to his prolific film career in L.A. The stories are always deeply personal, and run the gamut of emotions. A single tale can have the audience laughing one minute and crying the next.
Tales of grandiose Hollywood parties or working with Bill Murray would be fascinating even at face value. However, it is not the experiences themselves that make Stephen’s stories great; it’s his perspective. The narrative quickly transcend Tobolowsky’s personal history, instead delving into the collective experiences of the audience. Stephen is able to tap into a shared desire to uncover higher meaning in both ordinary and extraordinary life events.
Tobolowsky Files listeners will likely be expecting the film to be something of a “greatest hits” of the podcast, and to some extent, they’d be correct. Several of the more memorable and touching stories from the podcast are featured, coupled with several that I did not recognize. Each story is interconnected, contextualized by a larger framing narrative.
The visual medium of film brings a completely new dimension to Stephen’s stories as well. The Primary Instinct is as much a study of on-stage performance as it is about storytelling. Each segment is incredibly personal, and you can see Stephen’s emotions ebb and flow with the narrative tides. Seeing the man behind the voice adds to the humanity each tale, making them even more relatable to the listener.
Long-time podcast host David Chen’s contribution from the director’s chair should not be understated. The editing of the film is nearly seamless, and the camera is always in the best position to capture Stephen’s performance. The director’s influence allows the performance and story to take precedent above all else, and the film is extremely engaging throughout its brisk 73-minute runtime. Chen has also chronicled every step of his filmmaking journey, providing a number of fascinating insights into what is truly involved in the making of a film.
During the Q&A following the screening, Chen revealed that the film was originally intended to be a more “traditional” documentary, intercutting talking-head footage with snippets of the live performance. In the end, the duo felt that the film was stronger as a concert documentary, allowing the opportunity for the performance to truly shine. It is easy to see why. Stephen’s stories are deeply entwined; narrative arcs are built on seemingly separate tales, and the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It takes a real maturity for a filmmaker to shelve what was likely dozens of interesting ideas for the greater good of the film, but that is exactly what Chen does in his directorial debut.
To long-time fans of The Tobolowsky Files: go see The Primary Instinct. It is what you have come to expect and more, and will absolutely not disappoint. To newcomers unfamiliar with Stephen Tobolowsky: go see The Primary Instinct. It is an experience unlike any other you will have in a theater this year, and you will be thankful you took the leap.