Wild Man Blues (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If I didn't know this was a documentary, I might easily mistake it for the latest feature offering from Woody Allen – that's how interchangeable the public personae of the director has become with that of the nebbish screen character he always portrays. In Wild Man Blues, Allen plays himself, a role he has not previously attempted, at least not openly. But this claustrophobic, neurotic artist bears more than a passing resemblance to the protagonist of Deconstructing Harry. Or of Everyone Says I Love You. Or of Husbands and Wives. Or… Well, you get the picture.

Ostensibly, the purpose of Wild Man Blues was to create a celluloid record of the whirlwind concert tour of Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band (18 European venues in 23 days). Allen, who spent years nursing his passion for the clarinet at Michael's Pub in New York, finally decided to take the show on the road in 1996. Oddly, as it turns out, the least interesting elements of the film are those that deal with Allen the musician, and the editing rarely allows us to hear more than scattered bits and pieces of a number of great jazz standards. Indeed, the most fascinating and illuminating aspect of Wild Man Blues is its ability to capture the essence of Allen's relationship with his then girlfriend (now wife), the "notorious" Soon-Yi Previn.

The Allen/Previn liaison, which has been much maligned in the United States and once provided daily fodder for tabloids and talk radio shows, is subtly explored throughout Wild Man Blues. Director Barbara Kopple was provided "complete access," and she used it to capture many intimate details of the couple's interaction: how they use separate bathrooms, how Previn foists an unwanted breakfast off on Allen, and how they have gradually become less reticent about public displays of affection. The overall image is one of two people that, despite their age and cultural differences, are completely at ease with each another. There's a lot of affection, albeit without any sense of sexual attraction (at times, Allen looks to Previn for almost-maternal comfort and assurance). And, if there's a leader in the relationship, it's clearly Previn, whose advice on both business and domestic matters is always heeded.

Wild Man Blues is not a concert film, as is obvious from its frustratingly brief musical interludes (Kopple repeatedly truncates lively performances, including a great rendition of "Down by the Waterside"). Neither is it worshipful of its central figure (that was one of the chief failings of Jim Jarmusch's dull, lifeless look at Neil Young, Year of the Horse). Although Allen is not demonized, he is shown to be a deeply flawed human being who is aware of (most of) his numerous failings.

With two award-winning films under her belt (Harlan County, USA and American Dream), Kopple has set herself up as one of the country's leading documentarians, so it's a little surprising to see her tackling such seemingly-light material. And, although she does a decent job with what she has to work with, there's a limit to the variety available from following Woody, his sister, his girlfriend, and his fellow band members from Paris to Madrid to Geneva to Rome to London. Wild Man Blues has a tendency to become repetitious, especially during the final forty minutes (although the brilliant closing scene, with Previn and Allen visiting his parents in New York, is irreplaceable). This movie is for anyone who wants to learn a little more about the "real" Allen than what can be determined from the tabloids and interpolated from his numerous semi-autobiographical feature outings.

Wild Man Blues (United States, 1997)

Director: Barbara Kopple
Cast: Woody Allen, Soon-Yi Previn, Letty Aronson, Eddie Davis, and the band
Cinematography: Tom Hurwitz
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1