WILD MAN BLUES

PG
Reviews

First things first-yes, Woody Allen in real life appears to be pretty much like the movie Woody Allen, at least on the evidence of Wild Man Blues, in which the gifted documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple followed him and his seven-piece band around Europe on their 1996 18-city (11 documented here) concert tour. The movie takes a while to get going, meaning that the audience is initially a bit uneasy until we relax with the realization that Allen, perhaps the most genial film genius/intellectual working today, is going to be just a regular guy. In the opening New York sections, Allen, swathed in a huge overcoat and cap and those giant nerd glasses, looks like a diminutive Walter Matthau galumphing around the city.

Kopple is a hands-down brilliant social documentarian, best known for the riveting American Dream and Harlan County, USA (as well as her TV-made portrait of Mike Tyson). Ultimately and comparatively, she seems to be swimming laps in making this film. There are no giant statements about the nature of celebrity or Jamesian Americans abroad or whatever. Wild Man Blues is handsomely made, but it's on another level, an easygoing look at Allen, who terms himself 'chronically dissatisfied,' never able to enjoy any place he happens to be in until he's left it. He has been playing his clarinet with this band in New York boites for a long time, and we see why: The music, as he defines it, is primitive and upfront, and so's he while he's playing it. There's no distance between him and the audience he's spent his life trying to avoid; he's out of the self-protective cocoon adopted to preserve his privacy and survive his worldwide 'star' status, which functions for both good and ill. Allen actually seems to handle the stress of the busy tour-the constant fans and photogs, press conferences, etc.-in good stead, almost always pleasant, although the advantages of various language disparaties allows him to zing in a wisecrack or two, hinting at his unease.

There's not much in the way of revelation here, although Allen notes at one point that Spielberg and Pollack make movies like the ones they grew up with, but so does Allen, except that he was watching European art films. For those viewers along on the trip for a look at, as he introduces her at one point, the 'notorious' Soon-Yi Previn (now his wife), they won't be disappointed; she seems down-to-earth, very much younger than the comparatively curmudgeonly Allen, and very much a self-efacing, chiding mother figure. For Woody fans, there are enough standup comic moments in the film-how could he, a comedian, not play to the camera occasionally? And, of course, all that music, New Orleans jazz, a jumpy, ragged blend of blues and ragtime that sounds a bit strangulated at times. The music is not at all to everyone's taste (and Allen's quite aware that the crowds he draws to the concerts are there to see Woody Allen, not hear the music) and, for non-fans, there may be one chorus too many of 'The Old Rugged Cross.'

The film, tidily shot by Kopple's usual cameraman Tom Hurwitz, builds to an amazing, unexpected climax, as Allen and Soon-Yi and his sister Letty Aronson (a constant, refreshing presence on the tour) sit around talking with Allen's aged parents, his lively outspoken mother and sadly budding-senile father. They offer a corrective, downbeat, non-Woody view of their famous son-that he stayed in his room a lot as a kid and excelled at sports, that they'd rather he found a nice Jewish girl to settle down with, that he should have become what he/they originally wanted: a pharmacist. This funny-sad 'lunch from hell' (Allen's term) takes your breath away with its honesty, it's like a documentary Woody Allen movie. And unexpected: For a guy so protective of his privacy (and with good reason to be so), it's a remarkably courageous thing to do, to allow these scenes to be shot and keep them in the finished film. (You think back to all the versions of filmic-Woody's parents in his movies-especially the 'Oepidus Wrecks' section of New York Stories-and wonder.) Maybe it's Allen's Jewish answer to the Italian-Catholic Scorsese and Coppola, who put their relatives, stereotypes and all, all over the place in their pictures.

Tech credits are modest, and the sound, unfortunately for the concert segments, is a tad fuzzy. Whatever one thinks about Woody Allen, you'll probably find it in here, except why Americans don't much turn out to see his movies.

--David Bartholomew