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The Boston Phoenix Reconstructing Woody

Kopple, Soon-Yi tame him in "Wild Man Blues."

By Peter Keough

MAY 18, 1998: 

After all the headlines, the court time, and the scandalmongering, it's gratifying to see that Soon-Yi Previn has the upper hand with her new husband, Woody Allen. That's one of the pleasures in Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple's blithe and entertaining if not especially hard-hitting new documentary about Allen's 18-city 1996 tour of Europe with his Dixieland-jazz band.

The title is a misnomer -- except for the occasional snarled aside about smashing some paparazzo's face in, the man not so long ago demonized in the media as a lying, two-timing, lecherous cradle robber with a hinted-at penchant for incest comes across as a decent, humble, funny guy with a passion for music, a guy fraught with insecurity, neurosis, and melancholy who gratefully submits to the bemused mothering of a stronger, if much younger, woman. In short, the high-profile nightmare of his debacle with Mia Farrow seems to have settled into a Woody Allen movie of the more genial kind.

For Kopple, it's a far remove from her Oscar-winning Harlan County USA (1977), a gritty account of a brutal union dispute, or even her more recent Emmy-winning TV movie about another celebrity notorious for woman problems -- Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson. Although reportedly given unlimited access to Allen and company during the making of the film, and receiving no interference from him in shaping it into its final form, Blues is an invariably positive and endearing portrait. No doubt Allen saw it as an opportunity to restore his image. Or perhaps music does, indeed, soothe the savage breast.

Certainly his pleasure in performing music is genuine. In its surprisingly entertaining concert footage, the film justifies Allen's 25-year Monday-night ritual of playing the clarinet with his band at Manhattan's now defunct Michael's Pub (the gig has since moved to the Carlyle Café). Before often appreciative, sometimes bewildered crowds he and his cohort find new wrinkles in old chestnuts like the title Louis Armstrong number, and Allen seems truly liberated, his foot tapping, his riffs with the other musicians exuberant and witty.

To this untrained ear he sounds pretty good, and the release he gets from his persona of relentless self-analysis and cerebral reflection is palpable. "There's nothing between you and the music," he observes. "There's no verbal element to it." It's a telling remark from someone who ended one of his funniest stories with the image of the hero being pursued by a giant, hairy, irregular French verb, and whose last film featured him as an amoral writer who can find peace only by transforming his benighted relationships into prose.

As for his current relationship, it still retains an air of seaminess, redolent with an odd parent/child role reversal. In one segment Allen and Soon-Yi lounge in robes in their Madrid hotel room. Room service arrives, whereupon she describes her omelet as "like a rock" and unceremoniously swaps it for his. "So why did you give it to me?" he laments. Ignoring him, Soon-Yi lectures him on his failure to communicate properly with all the members of the band. Allen heeds her without complaint, as he does in later scenes in which she describes him as looking like a nerd in an old photo, admits she has seen few of his movies, describes his film Interiors as "tedious," and shows little interest when he suggests that she go and see Annie Hall with her "teenage" friends.

So should Mia find this poetic justice? Hardly. Although vaguely creepy, it's nonetheless touching when Soon-Yi comforts a visibly distressed Allen as they share a rocky gondola ride through Venice as crowds of starstruck tourists gawk from the banks and bridges. Or when she encourages him to swim an extra lap in a baroque Old World hotel pool, or tends him in bed when he has the flu. And there is a lingering note of pathos to his celebrity and the nature of his talent, particularly when she asks him at one point why he's depressed and he says it's just that time of day.

As for the source of this not-so-wild man's blues, Kopple saves the best for last -- a lunch with Allen's parents that's so hilarious and illuminating, it's hard to believe Allen didn't script it himself. In between comments about him not marrying a nice Jewish girl and how he could have contributed as much or more to society by being a druggist, Allen shows his nonagenarian father a lifetime-achievement award he picked up in Italy, an honor that, Allen earlier noted with incredulity, not even Fellini himself received. The old man eyes it thoughtfully and concludes, "Very nice engraving."


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