"Wild Man Blues," Barbara Kopple's documentary about Woody Allen's 1996 European tour with his Dixieland jazz band, is a fascinating film, not only for the truths it reveals but for the problems it presents.
For one thing, "Wild Man Blues" is produced by Jean Doumanian, Allen's producer and good friend. Kopple has shown herself to be a highly principled filmmaker in such films as "Harlan County, U.S.A." and "American Dream," both about the contemporary American labor movement. But Doumanian's imprimatur raises troubling questions about control and objectivity.
And there is never any doubt that Allen, who has starred in 22 of his own films, is aware of the camera; even his unattractive whining takes on a slightly studied air. The only time he doesn't seem to be playing to an audience is during the film's final sequences, when he visits his elderly -- and highly critical -- parents. Among the most comforting revelations of "Wild Man Blues" is that even someone as accomplished as Allen can never win.
Despite the challenges, Kopple succeeds in gleaning a few revelatory details of Allen's life with his new wife, Soon-Yi Previn, as well as his almost paralyzing idiosyncrasies. "Wild Man Blues" begins on a private jet as Allen and Previn embark for France, where Allen will begin the tour. And immediately the Allenisms begin: He doesn't understand his producer's devotion to her dog ("You feed it and walk it, but there's no return"), he frets about the coming dates ("Theoretically this is supposed to be fun for us").
Allen is so distant from the musicians it's hard to believe that they've been playing together for 25 years. But at their first gig in Madrid, the mood lightens considerably once they begin to play. Allen comes alive, he chats up the crowd with engaging warmth, and the musicians clearly enjoy themselves as much as the audience.
For the rest of this very engaging journey, "Wild Man Blues" will prove to be as much a testament to the universal language of music as it is a meditation on fame, a glimpse of intimacy and an excavation of the neuroses that plague highly gifted artists.
There are awkward passages, but they have their pay-offs. As boring and uncomfortable as it is to watch Allen and Previn speak in supposed privacy, especially at breakfast, those scenes do go a long way in defusing the controversy that surrounded their tumultuous courtship. A graceful and self-possessed young woman, Previn does not hesitate to tell Allen to compliment the band more often, and she continues to advise him throughout the trip.
As "Wild Man Blues" progresses, Allen experiences increasingly crazed adulation; by the time the group reaches Italy, the crowds must be restrained by the police. And the concerts themselves begin to face daunting obstacles, including a blackout that forces the band to play in the dark.
Allen lets rip with several signature quips throughout the film: In Milan he sends the laundry out, hoping "that it doesn't come back breaded." He urges Previn to watch "Annie Hall" with her "teen-aged twitty friends."
But by far the funniest and most poignant scenes take place when Allen interacts with his parents. The expressions on his and his sister's faces after a harrowing long-distance call are the most unguarded, and thus the most eloquent, moments of the film. Back in New York, Allen shows off the medals and mementos he received on the trip. His mother says she'll put it "with the other stuff." She means his three Oscars.
We learn that as a child Allen "did a lot of things, but he didn't pursue them" and that if she had her way, he'd be a pharmacist and married to a "nice Jewish girl." Sound familiar? It's appropriate that "Wild Man Blues" should end on Allen's indomitable mother; she's clearly a woman used to having the last word.
'Wild Man Blues'
Documentary starring Woody Allen, Soon-Yi Previn
Directed by Barbara Kopple
Rated PG (brief language)
Released by Fine Line Features
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 5/08/98