Wild Man Blues

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Suggested reading:

The Films of Woody Allen (Cambridge Film Classics)

(1993), Sam B. Girgus

Perspectives on Woody Allen (Persectives on Film)

(1996), Renee R. Curry

Woody Allen: Profane and Sacred

(1995), Richard A. Blake

Wild Man Blues is a skillfully made, straightforward documentary film recording Woody Allen’s 1996 concert tour of Europe with his New Orleans style jazz band. It is of interest for lovers of blues and ragtime music, particularly since, as the film establishes, this is the only band currently playing this music in the old New Orleans style.

More people, one suspects, will be interested in the opportunity the film presents to spend some time with a comedian, writer, and filmmaker whose body of work is an important contribution to twentieth century culture on the one hand, and who has been vilified by many in the United States for his personal life, on the other. Both director Barbara Kopple and Allen handle the latter largely by default, with Soon Yi Previn comfortably present through most of the proceedings and only one brief moment when Allen introduces her, with irony, of course, as the "notorious Soon Yi Previn."

CV believes strongly that one’s work should be judged for what it is and one’s personal life should be just that – a personal life. Ms. Kopple undoubtedly would agree. There is a quiet agenda here of keeping the personal relationship visible, natural, and low keyed. Europeans fuss far less than Americans do over these matters (though the hounding of celebrity by paparazzi seems far greater). The careful display of Allen’s honors, trophies, and Academy awards is not accidental in the context of the film.

CV thinks it would be naive to think that what is seen on film here is in some way the "real," the private Woody Allen. It is clear that he is highly aware of the camera at all times and is playing to it most of the time, with, perhaps, the exception of the final scene when we get to meet his aged, but lucid parents. "You did a lot of good things, but you never pursued them!" his mother gently kvetches. Allen downplays his musical skills, but through the generous amount of concert footage the viewer gets something from Allen that he doesn’t offer elsewhere – unmediated access to emotional expression. As one of the ultimate ironists of his time, Allen’s verbal/comic technique is always to speak on more than one level of meaning, saying something meaning one thing on the surface and conveying something utterly different, often the very opposite, at the same time. This is the technique of his humor and the way he shares his take on the world. It also has the effect of allowing him to conceal himself, to remove himself a step behind his multiple meanings.

But in the music, it is the sound that he draws from his clarinet that speaks. That is without irony and opens him up to us in a very different way. Only one concert on the tour seemed not to succeed particularly well with the audience – a stodgy, private, corporate communications group in Italy. When he arrives in London though, suffering from a touch of flu, he worries, "If I’m not good, these people will hate me in my own language!"

He was good.

..Arthur Lazere

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