Wild Man Blues (1997, Barbara Kopple)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

A deceptively lowkey oddity, this Barbara Kopple documentary follows, of all things, Woody Allen — and not Allen as the untouchable artist, the comedian, the public figure and source of scandal or the prolific writer and filmmaker, but a Woody Allen the general public barely knows: the musician. The film captures his reluctant mounting of a European tour in his parallel non-career as a jazz clarinetist with a crackerjack band led by the jovial banjoist Eddy Davis, and with no embellishment except cleverly quick-paced editing presents a surprisingly uncluttered portrait of a widely beloved, widely speculated-upon, “intensely private” figure. Wild Man Blues actually attempts to serve at least four different functions, and manages to fulfill its promise on all fronts.

The superficial part — which should likely be obvious — is that if you’re a fan of Woody Allen, you must see this. Unfortunately, it’s presently difficult to source on DVD (unless you have $89 handy) but is available in reasonably good quality on Youtube. Thanks in part to the fact that it comes to us from a real and highly capable filmmaker like Kopple, you’ll certainly find this more telling and perceptive than the recent four-hour American Experience documentary because it finds Allen truly unguarded, fully trusting of a fellow film artist. Those of us who think of him first and foremost as a great director may never get to watch him working on a movie in great detail, but seeing him help to create any kind of a “show” night after night reveals a lot about his process, his showmanship, and his amusing hybrid of real and false modesty.

If you love New Orleans jazz, fear not that Allen is like the musical equivalent of a cash-in celebrity novelist; he’s an excellent, resourceful musician and his band is stellar. Kopple doesn’t include a great number of complete performances, which may gripe some viewers but is really just a realistic tactic for a film like this. Putting yourself in Kopple’s shoes, you realize that she simply had to devote the lion’s share of screen time in these breakneck 103 minutes to footage of Allen being funny, which he naturally is, and then you note how this cleverly parallels Allen’s own experience on this tour. Wanting simply to play music for fun, he must — because of his notoriety — say a few words, often a lot of words, and commisserate with full awareness of the real reason most of the crowd is here. (That having been said, it’s quite moving to see how many people deeply love Allen’s work, enough to follow him into an atypical lateral move like this.

If you, like me, strongly prefer vérité documentaries to the modernist talking-head and first-person nonfiction films — if you think the Maysles’ astonishingly intimate and revealing The First U.S. Visit is far more interesting than the more guarded and “authoritative” Beatles Anthology, let’s say — you will be in heaven here. Kopple is from the documentarian school of the Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker, and she means very clearly to immerse us in an unadorned portrait of real life happening. We see Allen before and after shows, confused about the rooms he’s being shoved into, putting on a smiling face when he’s clearly not feeling up to it, and exchanging warm repartee with his family, all without any shoved-in perspective on the part of the documentarians.

But underneath all that, I was most impressed by how much the film managed to say — with no narration, and no real story drive besides just the gang moving from point to point then going home — about the nature of celebrity and of art, two of the strongest themes in Allen’s films of this period. Stripped of everything that he typically hides behind, Allen is shown to us as an exceptional and smart man but also, in most respects, an ordinary one. The film’s most incisive commentary is about how fame challenges and distorts lives on both sides of the curtain, but what’s riveting here is the manner in which Kopple contrasts the doting, sly support of Allen’s wife and sister with the hostility and disappointment of his parents, introduced at the end of the picture. (Allen’s mother only allows herself to show any pride in his work when he’s not in the room.

In a room with his mom and dad, even as fragmented as the latter seems to be by this point, Allen is — as Kopple herself pointed out — a 12 year-old boy again. Soon-Yi Previn and Letty Aronson tease him and goof around on him, but they also unmistakably are a cushion and a support and the sort of permanent cloud of understanding we all should be so lucky to enjoy. In chronicling a Renaissance man doing things far afield of his chosen — or at least, best known — field(s) of expression, Kopple gets at the heart of the blustery, restless creative life (if not the soul) of an artist.

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