WILD MAN BLUES
(director: Barbara Kopple; cinematographer: Tom Hurwitz; editor: Lawrence Silk; cast: Woody Allen, Soon-Yi Previn, Dan Barrett, Simon Wettenhall, John Gill, Cynthia Sayer, Greg Cohen, Eddy Davis, Letty Aronson; Runtime: 105; Fine Line Features; 1998)
“It is a most relaxed and enjoyable look at the neurotic comic, who appears to be no different in this documentary from the way he is in his films.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Barbara Kopple was asked by Woody to do a cinema verite documentary on his 18-city European New Orleans Jazz tour he will be on with his demonized-in-print girlfriend and soon-to be-wife, Soon-Yi Previn, with Woody promising to let her film without any interference. It is a most relaxed and enjoyable look at the neurotic comic, who appears to be no different in this documentary from the way he is in his films. But what is vividly shown is how exhilarated Woody gets from playing the clarinet and how wonderfully morbid he is about everything else he does, from eating a vulcanized Spanish omelet in Spain to getting seasick on a gondola in Venice. Woody’s trek from one luxury hotel to another, lets us hear the comedian’s constant wisecracks and tune into his idiosyncrasies. When sending out his laundry in Milan he says, “I hope it doesn’t come back breaded.” He looks into the unintrusive camera and tells us that he always must have his own bathroom when traveling, this way he can have room for all his ointments, which is the reason he always looks so good.
Woody seems to be acting natural as he interacts with his sister Letty Aronson and the motherly Soon-Yi. She relates to the aging comic’s foibles and crankiness and need to be treated with kid gloves by voicing her opinion on what he should do, which he either ignores or childishly follows or comes up with a good one-liner for. This seems to be the real Woody and not a put on, and you either love him or shy away.
The relationship between the couple is what the film turns out to be mainly about. Therefore since Kopple films Woody and his bride as they act natural together, there is no need to look for gossip columnists to know more about the star and the tabloid headline relationship he has with his step-daughter and now lover. There seems to be nothing seedy going on between them, except a relationship based on need and affection; their relationship does not appear to be fraught with overt sexuality.
Woody’s happiest playing the clarinet with the band, as his head bobs up and down and he keeps time with the music by tapping his feet. Some of the snippets from the numbers he played included the joyous songs like “Down by the Riverside” and “Home Sweet Home.” If there is any criticism for the film, it could be noted that we didn’t hear enough of the band playing.
Woody seemed to be comfortably aloof from the band — relating mostly to the smiling banjo player, Eddie Davis, the one who put the group together. There are good vibes, as they all seem to be on the same page. What might be surprising to a lot of people, is how good the band actually is and how much fun they seem to have playing together. After the concert Woody and the band go their separate ways. So this documentary covers Woody fully, giving us a fly-in-the wall look at the claustrophobic star as he is mobbed by admiring fans and wends his way through the autograph seekers and those who want to take photos of him and his ardent wealthy admirers who flatter him. But as Woody duly notes, these rich admirers won’t pay a dime to see my films.
Woody and the band show their mettle in one Italian city, as there is a power failure and they continue playing. That he receives an engraved plaque for this, encourages Woody to joke about how it comes easy for him to be a hero. After awhile, seeing one luxurious hotel after another becomes a déjà vu experience. The trip took him to Paris, where he was excited about going into a music store that had an historic clarinet that suited him. In London he quipped that he can fail at last in a country that speaks his language. Woody comments that he always wants to be somewhere he isn’t — if he is in Milan, he wants to be in New York.
The travelogue ends on his arrival in New York and the high-rise apartment of his 96-year-old father and 90+ mother, who treat him to a neurotic scene that could be right out of a shrink’s office or one of his films. The father would have preferred that Woody had been a pharmacist. The mother would have preferred if he married a nice Jewish girl. Woody and Soon-Yi sit there in the kitchen and take in all the put downs without fighting back. This scene ices the cake on Barbara Kopple’s splendid work; it couldn’t get more absurd than this for the serious maker of documentaries (Harlan County, USA), as Allen is reduced to being a child again in front of his overbearing Jewish parents.
REVIEWED ON 7/9/99 GRADE: B