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In Barbara Kopple's new documentary, Wild Man Blues, we follow Woody Allen around Europe on a whirlwind concert tour with his New Orleans jazz band. He's kvetching from the get-go. "I would rather be bitten by a dog than fly to Paris," he announces midair, then mellows on the Champs-Elysees by complimenting the gray weather. "I don't like sun," he declares. Who but Woody 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 species 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, as he is here, 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 like we've learned anything new about him -- at least nothing we haven't already learned from his movies. And because the Woody Allen in this film is so all-of-a-piece with the Woody Allen in his own films, we don't really trust Wild Man Blues. It's too pat. It plays up the idea that the person and the persona are the same thing, and, psychologically, that doesn't ring true -- even though Allen has made a career fostering that very notion. Even when his private life went public a few years back -- with his famous troubles with Mia Farrow and his eventual marriage to Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn -- there was still the perception that we were witnessing a particularly tabloidy Woody Allen movie. People want to believe that, in his movies and his life, Woody Allen is "Woody Allen."
And that's pretty much what he -- and Kopple -- give us in Wild Man Blues. It caters to our childlike wish that, in reality, all movie personalities are indeed the way they come across on-screen. The larger-than-life aspects of the screen image turn us all into supplicants before the altar of stardom. And Woody Allen's star rose at a time -- 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 in back of this approach has often gotten the better of Allen the filmmaker. Even when he supposedly flays his "real" self for public consumption in his latest film Deconstructing Harry, he's 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 whirlwind pace, either. Since Kopple and her cinematographer Tom Hurwitz reportedly followed Allen and Soon-Yi around 18 hours a day, we wonder why we never see them really mixing it up with the locals, or seeing the sights. Allen doesn't even mix it up with his own musicians, or know all their names.
For all his vaunted above-the-Hollywood-fray airs, Allen comes across as not that much different from a typical movie or rock star who barges through the territory in a capsule of self-containment. His connection to what he sees is surprisingly show-biz -- 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 -- to reinforce 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. Clarinetists tend to be controlling types anyway, but the New Orleans style encourages 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 hear his music; he's also smart enough to remark that the same people who traipse out to his concerts don't always turn out for his films.) But unlike most jazz performers -- even the ones, like, say Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis who seemed transfixed by an inner beat -- 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 mix it up with his audience either, except at official functions where he seems -- natch -- uncomfortable.
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