Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wild Man Blues

Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues, a documentary of Woody Allen's 1996 European tour with his New Orleans-style jazz band, confirms what everyone has long suspected, that Woody Allen the man is pretty much the same person that audiences have come to know from the characters he plays in films. He's neurotic, compulsively nervous about everything from boat rides to his own health, and he's very funny, in the casual, natural way that his conversational style tends to hone in on jokes at every opportunity. Woody's idol Groucho Marx was famous for always being in character, on camera and off, and it seems as though Woody has achieved a similar fluidity between his public and private personae. Kopple's cameras follow Allen rigorously throughout his whirlwind tour, capturing him on-stage with his band and off-stage in a variety of settings, from the required meetings with foreign dignitaries to signing autographs for fans to lounging around in hotel rooms with his sister Letty Aronson and his then-girlfriend, soon-to-be wife Soon-Yi Previn. Kopple catches many an unguarded moment, including some wonderfully intimate time spent with Woody and Soon-Yi, but what's remarkable is that the film hardly reveals anything new or particularly surprising about the director — instead, it often feels like watching a Woody Allen movie.

What is revealing in the film, though, is the attention given to Allen's music, which is often given short shrift in discussions of his work, but which he apparently considers a very important part of his creative life. Allen took up the clarinet as a very young man, moved by his longtime love of jazz, and he has been performing in jazz bands for longer than he has been making movies — he first started sitting in with some New York groups early on in his stand-up career in the 60s. Seeing Woody on-stage in this context is a new and seldom explored dimension to the performer. His love of jazz — and specifically this outmoded, rarely played form of New Orleans jazz — fits comfortably with his general nostalgic outlook, his affection for old artforms, for places with a sense of cultural history, for earlier eras. Kopple captures his performances with fluid, expressive camerawork, going for intuitive framings and reframings, the camera restlessly roaming over the faces of the players. The music is vibrant and fun, and the best parts of the film are its concert segments.

Unfortunately, Kopple doesn't focus as much as one would expect on the music itself, which is somewhat disappointing. Throughout the film, Woody laments that many people only go to these concerts for his celebrity status, not for the music, and Kopple's documentary occasionally seems to fall into the same trap. She's very interested in the reception Woody gets abroad as compared to in the US, and in his relationship with Soon-Yi, but to some extent the concerts themselves get short shrift. There are only two long, uninterrupted excerpts from the performances, one at around the halfway point of the film and the other towards the end, from the group's final concert of the jaunt, in London. Many of the other performances are chopped into very small segments, or worse yet interrupted by unnecessary voiceovers from Woody or his band leader and banjoist, Eddy Davis. It's rare that Kopple provides an opportunity to watch a performance develop over time, to get a sense for the structure of a whole song or the interplay within the band, or the ways in which their sets develop from night to night. Considering Woody's obvious desire for people to take his music seriously, it's unfortunate that the documentary itself mostly treats the music as filler, chopped up and played in short excerpts that serve as dividers between the material from backstage and during off-hours. It's not really a document of a working band and their music so much as it is a profile of a famous figure who just so happens to be touring in a band at the moment.

That said, the two occasions when Kopple does choose to focus on the music at greater length are very enlightening indeed. The excerpt from the band's final London concert provides a great opportunity to watch the improvisation within the band, the way the three horn players — Woody, trombonist Dan Barrett, and trumpeter Simon Wettenhall — pass off solos to one another in turn, a perfect example of the sensitivity to jazz structures and development over time that is missing from the rest of the film. Even better is the earlier long concert segment, in which Kopple excerpts a lengthy part of a performance starting with Woody's clarinet solo and running straight to the end of the song. Woody's solo is somewhat unusual, marked by very breathy, wheezy playing that mostly just sends air circulating through the instrument in quick, choppy breaths, only sporadically generating any actual notes. The music seems to emerge, tentatively, from the constant bed of static generated by the soloist's breathing. This tender, mournful solo, sometimes lapsing towards the threshold of inaudibility, surprisingly elicits laughter from the audience, who seem to think that Woody's kidding around, that his failure to produce clear melodic notes is a joke. They're seemingly unaware that his playing is intentional, and derived from a long lineage of similar techniques running through jazz history, and especially common in free jazz and post-jazz experimental musics. It's a telling moment, indicative of a gulf between the audience and the musicians. Woody knows full well that most in the audience are not there because of a genuine love or understanding of jazz, but because he's a famous director and media figure.

One only wishes that Kopple, having obviously grasped the importance of this moment by singling it out and dwelling on it, would have followed up on it, delving further into Woody's feelings about his music. She lets Woody talk about his music but seldom goes further into it with him. Some of the only direct, interview-style questioning in the film occurs towards the end, and it concerns Woody's relationship with Soon-Yi and the scandal that followed. Kopple also fails to really visualize some of Woody's most interesting observations about his music, like his repeated discussions of the balance he tries to strike between throwing out one "crowd-pleaser" after another and playing some more difficult, esoteric material. One would guess that Woody's breathy solo falls into the latter category, while most of the rest of the music in the film is relentlessly upbeat, danceable, and fun; certainly crowd-pleasing. But the film never develops any sense of how the band balances these two tendencies in concert, or how they structure their sets in general. There is some discussion of changing sets between nights, and Woody's conscious attempts to make some nights more challenging than others, but Kopple's presentation of the music in mostly sound-bite fragments doesn't provide any sense of how this actually works, or what the difference might be between one night and another. There's a disconnect between Woody's serious, intellectual consideration of his own music and the essentially fluffy presentation of that music in the documentary. The music segments are always enjoyable, not to mention beautifully and inventively shot, but there remains a sense of missed opportunities every time Woody makes an analytical statement about the music that is not followed up in the concert extracts.

Though this failure to really explore the band's music in depth is unfortunate, Kopple's attention to Woody's behind the scenes life does yield some interesting results. One of the most welcome of these is the most uncensored, unfettered view possible of the relationship between Woody and his young love, who at one point he playfully introduces as "the notorious Soon-Yi Previn." It is impossible to walk away from this film with anything other than a positive view of this relationship, which seems genuinely loving, affectionate, and comfortable. The couple, captured in quietly intimate moments by Kopple's unobtrusive camera, completely dispel the taint of perversion and iniquity generated by the rumor-hungry press who hyped up Woody's love for his then-girlfriend Mia Farrow's adopted daughter into a scandal of mammoth proportions. Kopple patiently accumulates a portrait of the couple through a wealth of details: Woody's casual compliments, Soon-Yi's gently scolding tone, the affectionate way she kisses his head when he's feeling sick or complaining about something or other, the way she squeezes his arm on a cozy gondola ride in Venice, their playful joking around with one another. Best of all is a great scene where Soon-Yi talks about Woody's films, admitting that she's never seen Annie Hall — which Woody says is the only one she should see — and that Manhattan is her favorite, while she says that she couldn't sit through Interiors. It's a warm, funny, unguarded moment, one of many in the film's backstage footage.

Wild Man Blues is not the in-depth examination of Woody Allen's under-documented music that it might have been, but it is nevertheless a certain delight for any of Woody's fans. For its joyous, lovingly filmed music, and its intimate documents of Woody's private time, the film is one of the best touchstones for those who wish to know what the famous director and actor is like when he's not making movies.

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