Wild Man Blues
First screened and reviewed in March 1998
Director: Barbara Kopple. Documentary. Follows Woody Allen and his jazz band's Spring 1996 tour of West European cities. With Woody Allen, Soon-Yi Previn, Letty Aronson, Eddy Davis.

Twitter Capsule: Funny, entertaining time capsule of Allen's jazz tour doubles as an incisive study of his ambivalent self-regard.

VOR:   Different, lighter aims than Kopple's famous political films but strong sign of the insight and personality she'd bring to other public-figure documentaries.

Ed. Jun 2014: A lightly retouched version of my second or third movie review for my college paper, dashed off on my first deadline. I've never re-watched the movie, but I'm glad this piece makes me want to!

Photo © 1997 Jean Doumanian Productions/Cabin Creek
Films/Sweetland Films, © 1998 Fine Line Features
(c/o West End Films)
In March 1996, Mira Sorvino was onstage in Los Angeles accepting her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite. That film's writer-director, nominated the same evening for his screenplay, was named earlier that month as the Directors Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. And where during all these festivities was the illustrious filmmaker himself?

Testing out a new mouthpiece for his clarinet. In Milan.

Woody Allen is rarely considered predictable, but this scene in Barbara Kopple's rollicking documentary Wild Man Blues reveals a supreme irony. While missing the Academy Awards to go woodwind-shopping might seem eccentric to us, that decision seems utterly predictable to Allen himself. He'll always pick his music over his stardom—it's just that no one in America cares that he even plays.

Wild Man Blues follows Woody Allen and his seven-member jazz band along their 1996 springtime tour of Europe. If that synopsis sounds like material for a three-minute Entertainment Tonight profile, then kudos go out immediately to Kopple, who knows that Allen's career as a jazzman is more than a fluff-level footnote to his movie work. Her documentary has already been faulted by some viewers at Sundance for downplaying Woody's day job, a criticism that misses Wild Man Blues's whole point: Woody Allen considers himself a developing musician who's lucky to have a steady nine-to-five making movies.

"I think it's seen just as a hobby of mine," Allen tells his sister Letty early in the movie, when the band and entourage are flying across the Atlantic to begin the tour. Any nerves about Kopple's camera are small potatoes next to his genuine stage fright at the prospect in front of him: weeks of one-night-only stops in Paris, Madrid, Turin, and other Old World cities, playing to audiences who know little about old-timer New Orleans jazz (which the band renders with real zest) but who know a great deal about the man on the marquee.

Unfortunately, simple star-gazing might be the wrong reason to come. "I'm not a sufficient enough musician to hold their attention," Allen frets, but his travelling companions, apparently used to his anxieties, gently console him. These initial scenes of conversation not only introduce us to the various members of the caravan, including then-fiancée Soon-Yi Previn. They also establish the level of access we will get to Woody throughout Wild Man Blues. He talks comfortably, even conversationally before the camera, and he is as happy to discuss others' perceptions of him as he is presenting his own thoughts on a range of subjects.

How strictly honest is Allen? To what degree he is always performing? These are questions the film simultaneously raises and dismisses. On the one hand, his barbed humor—which the movie captures more rewardingly than any of Allen's own recent work—can easily read as deflective, resistant to any penetrating insight into how he really operates, what he really thinks.

At the same time, might Allen's "honest self" actually inhere in such permanent performing? A man who tours Europe in a band, who has made one movie a year for two decades, and whose most private relationships are themselves so inherently sensational is hardly being false to describe himself as a constant entertainer, an inveterate showman. The Woody Allen of Wild Man Blues may or may not be The Real Woody Allen, whatever that means, but his jokes, confessions, and worries all ring true when held against one another. And wouldn't we disappointed if he weren't always "on"?

Kopple and her storied cinematographer Tom Hurwitz (they worked together on Harlan County, USA) use their camera to do much more than point and shoot, arbitrarily recording whatever material Woody provides. An insidious myth of documentary filmmaking is that craft is somehow absent, that the lack of actors and scripts translates to films that make themselves. Moreover, because of the twice-Oscared Kopple's towering reputation for films of urgent political salience, Wild Man Blues bears the brand of a "vacation film." As with Scorsese's Cape Fear or Coppola and Altman's recent Grisham adaptations, the idea of Kopple filming a celebrity bio sounds on paper like a hard-working master taking a crowd-pleasing breather.

All of these allegations are unfair criticisms of all the above-listed projects, and they certainly fail to acknowledge what Kopple has accomplished in Wild Man Blues. Nothing here will make anyone forget Harlan County, but craftsmanship and wit are as tangible here as in her more socially-minded work. Consider the sequence in which Kopple and Hurwitz leave the camera directly on Woody during a flailing, ten-minute performance when his lips have failed and his clarinet reed won't vibrate properly. As when the same essential scene played, grueling and effective, as the climax of the recent fiction film Georgia, this sequence in Wild Man Blues brilliantly captures the audience's fixed-gaze experience of watching a doomed performance, unable to look away even as their fascination mixes with pity or disdain. In this case, the scene also captures Allen's furious determination to breathe life back into his music—a more vehement wish, it lately seems, than any impetus to reinvigorate his cinema.

Further evidence of Kopple's sagacity emerges in her selection of dialogues to include in her film. Any movie rides on what is or is not cut, and Kopple and editor Lawrence Silk have chosen impressively candid moments through which Allen and his companions represent themselves in ways that are somehow multifaceted and straightforward at once. His assertion that "I just don't want to be where I am at any given moment" speaks as informatively about his personal-life problems as it does about his approach to touring with the band.

Which brings us to the Soon-Yi question. Without a doubt, one of Wild Man Blues's big selling points is its unprecedented access into the Woody/Soon-Yi relationship. Their bond proves to be both nervily discomfiting and prosaically normal. Soon-Yi herself, whose first line in the film is "Yeah," comes across as a profoundly hesitant and maybe even an unformed personality, with little faith in her own convictions or conversation. Nevertheless, she earnestly tries to support and encourage Woody and to prevent his anxieties from compromising his friendships, as when she stresses the importance of praising his bandmates.

Have I mentioned how uproarious Wild Man Blues is? Allen arrives in London, the band's final stop, with the prediction that this time "they'll hate me in my own language." Between concerts, as American tourists in ritzy locales flash his photo with starstruck squeals, he wonders why people who will fly overseas to take his picture "won't pay ten cents to see one of my movies." The kicker sequence is the last, when Woody and Soon-Yi return to New York and have lunch with his parents. His father is 96 and has never seen one of his films. His mother looks just like Woody and asserts that, throughout his growing-up, "You did a lot of good things but you never pursued them"—this while three of his Oscars sit atop the bureau over her shoulder, and a filmmaking crew sits in her dining room following his movements. You can't impress everyone all the time, I guess.

Wild Man Blues is a lively belly-laugh comedy that neither cheapens its subject nor reveres him too much to make fun of him. Of the non-documentary films released so far this year, only Love and Death on Long Island maintains such jubilant giggles alongside comparable psychological acuity, and with equal comic and dramatic flair. Woody Allen himself is filming a script called Celebrity to be released this fall. He will be well-challenged to evoke the phenomenon of ambivalent but incontestable fame as sharply and engagingly as Kopple does here. Grade: B+

Sundance Film Festival: Best Cinematography, Documentary (Tom Hurwitz)
National Board of Review: Best Documentary Feature

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