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He's With the Band

In director Barbara Kopple's new documentary, Wild Man Blues, we follow Woody Allen around Europe as he takes part in a whirlwind concert tour with the New Orleans-style jazz band with which he plays. He kvetches from the get-go. "I would rather be bitten by a dog than fly to Paris," he announces midair. Later he mellows on the Champs Elysees by openly complimenting the gray weather. "I don't like sun," he declares. Who but Allen would praise Paris for its drizzliness?

Even though Wild Man Blues is framed as a "candid" view of Allen, clearly he's playing up -- or is it down? -- to the camera. He's so closed off that there was probably no way Kopple could have caught him with his guard down. He's too hyperaware of his shtick. The result seems less like a revealing look at the "real" Woody Allen -- whatever that is -- and more like a subspecies of the type of movie directed by Allen himself. He's been quoted as saying the film "depicted my personal life with an accuracy and wit that even made me laugh." If Kopple had made a film that disturbed him, that would have been even better.

It's a sly notion to capture Allen off-the-cuff, talking not about art and Freud and Ingmar Bergman, but rather about clarinets and jazz legend Sidney Bechet and how seasick he gets in a gondola. Kopple was clearly hoping for a sideways glimpse that would add up to a full portrait. But as it turns out, we don't feel as if we've learned anything new about him by film's end -- at least nothing we don't already know from having seen his movies. And because the Woody Allen in this film is so of-a-piece with the Woody Allen in his own films, we don't really trust Wild Man Blues. It's too pat. It posits the idea that Allen the person and Allen the persona are the same thing. Psychologically that doesn't ring true, even though Allen has made a career of fostering that very notion. When his private life went public a few years back -- his famous troubles with Mia Farrow, his eventual marriage to Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn -- there was still the perception that we were witnessing a particularly tabloidlike Woody Allen movie. People want to believe that, in his movies and in his life, Woody Allen is "Woody Allen."

And that's pretty much what he -- and Kopple -- give us in Wild Man Blues. The larger-than-life aspects of the cinematic image turn us into supplicants before the altar of stardom. And Allen's star rose in the mid to late '60s when standup and improvisatory performers were indeed working their own lives into their acts -- not in the Henny Youngman or Bill Cosby manner but on a deeper, more psychodramatic level. We were encouraged to recognize the real-life aspects to their art -- the stuff that made performers such as Allen, or Richard Pryor, so new-style funny.

But the narcissism behind this approach has often gotten the better of Allen the filmmaker. Even when he supposedly flayed his "real" self for public consumption in this past winter's Deconstructing Harry, he was still enraptured by his own turmoil. (This must be the real connection Allen feels with his beloved Bergman). Deconstructing Harry may have been warts-and-all, but its implicit message was: Love my warts.

In Wild Man Blues, we observe Allen traipsing with his band through Milan, Vienna, Rome, Bologna, London, Madrid, Paris, Turin, and Venice, and yet it's all a blur to him because he's not really taking anything in -- and not just because of the tour's frenetic pace, either. Given that Kopple and her cinematographer Tom Hurwitz reportedly trailed after Woody and Soon-Yi eighteen hours a day, we wonder why we never see the married couple really mixing it up with the locals or seeing the sights. Allen doesn't even mix it up with his bandmates or know all their names. (Banjo player Eddy Davis serves as its leader.)

For all his vaunted above-the-Hollywood-fray airs, Allen here comes across as not that much different from a typical movie or rock star who just barges through the territory in a capsule of self-containment. His connection to what he sees is surprisingly showbiz-y; at one point he says he can't be in Rome without thinking of La Dolce Vita. Kopple chimes in at this point by throwing some Nino Rota music on the soundtrack, reinforcing the notion that for Allen Italy is a Fellini-scape. But this music sets up the wrong, jaunty tone. It cutesies up Allen's creepy inwardness.

It's fascinating to watch Allen playing clarinet in the film's many concert sessions, because it's clear he's a control freak trying (ever so slightly) to limber up. The New Orleans style helps in that regard, encouraging looseness and improvisation -- the sort of thing Allen once brought to his comedy routines. As a player he's not bad; to the extent that he can look happy, he even seems vaguely pleased with himself as he tootles before his adoring audiences. (He's smart enough to know they're there to see him, not to hear the music; he's also smart enough to remark that the same people who attend his concerts don't always turn out for his films.) But unlike most decent jazz performers -- even the ones like, say, Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis, who seemed oblivious to the crowd -- Allen doesn't appear to pull anything special from his audience. He's playing not to them but at them, and he doesn't really interact with his fans except at official functions, where he seems (natch) uncomfortable.

Where he seems most at home is in hotel rooms, grousing about paparazzi or the service. It's hilarious to watch Allen in Madrid complaining about the tastelessness of the hotel's Spanish omelet; it's like a prime joke in one of his movies. But after a while our disaffection sets in here, too, because it's hard to connect with somebody who acts as if Milan's regal Principe di Savoia is basically a Motel 6. Wandering the swank suites in his-and-her white bathrobes, Woody and Soon-Yi come across like youth hostelers who won the lottery -- and don't care.

Soon-Yi has often been portrayed in the press as a bit dopey, but she's the heroine of Wild Man Blues -- the control freak's controller. She chides her husband for not going out of his way to compliment his band, and she's right. She turns out not to have seen Annie Hall (!). But she has seen Interiors, and she thinks it's "long and tedious." (She's right about that, too.) Soon-Yi doesn't seem to be in awe of Allen; she's more like one of those attentive Girl Friday types whom powerful men often attract. As it's presented to us, there's an element of play-acting in their marriage. They're like a comedy act. But even though he's old enough to be her grandfather, the generation gap seems insignificant. That's probably because you get the impression Allen in his sixties isn't far removed from Allen in his teens or twenties. He was born a kvetch, and he loves being pampered for his miseries. When he catches a head cold at the end of the concert tour, he's swaddled in hotel bedding while Soon-Yi tends to him -- a Jewish prince in clover.

After the tour Kopple springs a surprise on us: Allen pays a visit to his parents in Manhattan, and suddenly the film turns into a Freudian jest. His father, at age 96, has a full head of hair but not quite all his marbles; his mother, who looks a lot like Woody in drag, bemoans the fact that her son isn't married to a Jewish girl. Soon-Yi is present and says nothing, but Allen mutters into the camera, "This is truly the lunch from hell." It's a marvelous sequence even though it seems staged for our benefit. Allen's mother has her son's crack comic-timing. When you hear her sigh about how her boy studied tap dancing and singing but "never pursued" those interests, you feel like you're right at the root of Allen's neuroses. This family stuff is so stereotypically obvious that your first thought is, Of course Allen needed therapy all these years. Your second thought is, He'll never get out of therapy.

Wild Man Blues.
Directed by Barbara Kopple. Featuring Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn.

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Peter Rainer

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