May 11, 1998 / 15 Iyar, 5758

Wild-man plays the blues

By Mike Caccioppoli

BEFORE EVEN BEGINNING my review of Wild Man Blues, the new documentary from director Barbara Kopple, I must ‘fess up: I am a Woody Allen fan. Some may even call me a Woody Allen apologist, but that's nonsense. There's absolutely nothing to apologise for.

Let's face it, Woody is a genius pure and simple.

Back in the '70's, many critics were eager to compare Allen to Mel Brooks. But these days, that comparison is as flat as an hour-old seltzer. Wheras Allen continues year-in, year-out to come up with original and even controversial material -- dutifully pushing the envelope as far as he can -- Brooks remains firmly planted in the past, many of his jokes stereotyping of blacks and gays are no longer funny.

But I'm getting away from the point here, (You see, I told you I'm a Woody Allen fan ). While Wild Man Blues certainly does not rank as high as Kopple's other docs, Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream, as far as documentary filmmaking goes, it's still an invaluable film for Allen fans.

As Kopple follows Allen and his dixieland jazz band on their 1996 European tour, we catch a glimpse of Allen behind the scenes, something that is very rare when it comes to a man who prefers to keep his private moments very private indeed, when he can help it, that is.

I've been to "Michael's Pub" where Allen and his New York-based band play every Monday night, and where Woody remains, even on those Oscar nights when his name is on one of the ballots.

"When Brando didn't win for A Streetcar Named Desire," he says at one point during the film, "I knew it was an arbitrary decision."

While the music is well performed, I don't believe anyone is going to see Wild Man Blues for the music. Like myself, people want to see Allen's private moments, especially those with Soon Yi Previn, or as he calls her, "the infamous Soon Yi Previn."

As Kopple films them both before and after Allen's various concerts throughout Europe, we begin to notice that Soon Yi seems to be more of a mother figure than a girlfriend. She's always telling Allen what's best for him --- and with authority, I might add. While in retrospect it makes perfect sense for Woody to be in this kind of relationship, it did come as a surprise to me. Why? Because it turns the notion, largely based on poparazzi-induced images, of Allen as a Dirty Old Man and the naive young Soon Yi on their heads.

After watching Wild Man Blues one is left wondering if, in fact, that's really the case. Allen seems to need this kind of person in his life. They actually compliment each other quite nicely.

It also may come as a surprise to see how low-key Woody actually is in real life. Yes, he does maintain some of the neuroses that we're so used to seeing in his films, as he tells Kopple how he always needs to have his own bathroom in a hotel room, no matter how silly it may seem. It's also tough trying to keep track of all the medication that he needs.

But when it comes to dealing with the press and his adoring fans, his approach is surprisingly laid-back and even somewhat sarcastic. When one fan tells him how intelligent, how brilliant, how funny he is, the "wood-man" responds by telling her that it's really hard living up to such a high standard, you know, being a genius and all.

Some have complained that Wild Man Blues is too much of a fluff piece, and that Kopple should have shown some of Woody's faults, or at least been more objective. I don't think that's the point of the film at all. Do the people going to see the film really want some kind of expose of Allen, something that would just once again pander to those yellow journalists who follow him every day? I don't think so. Tell me, is it so bad that one of our most entertaining filmmakers is also an entertaining subject for a documentary?

While Wild Man Blues doesn't reveal as much as I might have wanted it to, I don't believe Allen would ever have allowed it to anyway. Yes the subject of a documentary does have some sort of control, like it or not, on how much is revealed.

But what I've come to understand, after seeing Wild Man Blues is that Allen is not that high strung, always operating at maximum speed kind of guy that he so often plays in his films. That his relationship with Previn is not your average May-December romance and that Woody can indeed play a mean clarinet. And while he does play to the camera from time to time, cracking jokes where he otherwise wouldn't be, isn't that only natural for a guy who pretty much lives either behind or in front of the camera?

And, ask yourself if you've ever seen anything funnier than watching Allen with his parents towards the end of the film, his mother telling him that this show business thing isn't very stable and that he should have becomes a pharmacist. Woody a pharmacist? Oy vey!

Mike Caccioppoli is JWR's chief movie reviewer.

© 1998, Mike Caccioppoli