Wild Man Blues

A 'Wild' Look at Woody

By Kenneth Turan

Friday, April 17, 1998

A gentle but inescapable irony is involved in titling a documentary about Woody Allen "Wild Man Blues." An amiable crank who enjoys Paris because "I don't like sun," gives cleaners specific instructions "so they'll know what to violate" and in general worries about everything that's not nailed down, Allen is hardly wild in the Hell's Angels sense of the word.

But the title, taken from a New Orleans jazz composition co-authored by Louis Armstrong, indicates that this Barbara Kopple-directed film is meant to focus on Allen the musician, specifically on the hectic 18-cities-in-24-days European tour that the clarinet-playing star and half a dozen players took in the spring of 1996.

Allen, it turns out, not only practices every day, but he's been obsessed with his clarinet and with New Orleans jazz ("It's like taking a bath in honey") since he was a teenager. But while a good portion of "Wild Man Blues" shows Allen and his group playing these lively and easygoing tunes with acceptable skill, the lure of this picture is not its musical presentations.

The key attractions, not surprisingly, are personal. "Wild Man Blues" gives a more intimate glimpse of Allen than he usually allows, ranging from digs about friends' pets ("Even among dogs, that dog I especially hate") to shots of him padding around a Milan hotel suite in a bathrobe as big as the Ritz.

Though she's mentioned only in passing in the press notes, of special interest to Allen watchers are the glimpses given of the woman who's now his wife and whom Allen at one point introduces, with pointed glee, as "the notorious Soon-Yi."

Resilient, forceful and surprisingly self-possessed, Soon-Yi actually comes off quite well. Hers is the take-charge voice of reason that attempts to connect Allen with the real world, reminding him, for instance, that "a compliment is always nice to hear" and that he should converse off-stage with his entire band, not just leader and old pal Eddy Davis.

In fact, cynics have suggested that, protestations to the contrary, Allen may have in part considered this film as a form of damage control to counter the vitriolic press he's encountered for his romance with the daughter of companion Mia Farrow. In that light, the empathetic persona of documentarian Kopple (twice an Oscar winner for "American Dream" and the landmark "Harlan County USA") may have been a factor in his choice over another candidate for the job, "Crumb's" Terry Zwigoff.

Whatever the reasons, Kopple has the skill to make "Wild Man Blues" into a smart and pleasant entertainment that benefits greatly from its subject's impeccable comic timing and superb, offhanded wit. Who else would glance around an over-elaborate Vienna hotel room and crack, "Franz Joseph used to bring his dates here," or refer to a romantic Venetian gondola ride as "a great way to achieve maximum tension."

Entertaining as it is, the combination of Kopple's skill and Allen's penchant for self-revelation makes "Wild Man Blues" perhaps a trifle more honest about his vulnerability and tentativeness than he might have planned. Tom Hurwitz's sympathetic camera catches Allen looking genuinely ill at ease when a mild wave hits his Venetian water taxi, and comments like "I don't want to be where I am at any given moment" are not conspicuously happy ones.

The most talked-about segment of "Wild Man Blues" is its last 10 minutes, when the weary travelers come home to relate their tales of derring-do to a most unlikely and exasperating audience, Allen's 93-year-old mother and 96-year-old father. Though it wouldn't be fair to spoil the surprise and relate exactly what went on, it's enough to say that when Allen finally blurts out, "This is truly the lunch from hell," he definitely has his reasons.

Wild Man Blues, 1998. PG, for brief language. Times guideline: nothing any of Allen's fans would find objectionable. Released by Fine Line Features. Director Barbara Kopple. Producer Jean Doumanian. Executive producer J.E. Beaucaire. Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz. Editor Lawrence Silk. Sound Peter Miller. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

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