Reed Between the Lines

The focus of documentarian Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues is Woody Allen the clarinet player. Not Woody Allen the comedian and filmmaker, not the cradle-robber, not even Woody the world-class worrywart. Kopple's subject, plain and simple, is the Woody Allen who can knock out a passable version of "Down by the Riverside" in the key of F without getting himself hooted off the bandstand by the boozy unwashed.

Sure it is. And the subject of Lolita is gas mileage.
There's not one trad-jazz lover in a hundred who would pay two bits to hear Woody Allen play "Tin Roof Blues" were he not also Woody Allen, the director of Annie Hall and Bullets Over Broadway. There's not one moviegoer in a thousand who would sit through his assorted tootlings, quavers and squawks were he not also Woody Allen, guardian of the world's funnybone, notorious seducer and devoted neurotic. By his own admission, the clarinetist inside him will never pose a threat to the legends of Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds or, for that matter, Woody Herman. But while we watch and hear this enthusiastic hobbyist of a jazzman perform in the midst of an eighteen-city European tour with a band assembled for the occasion, we also get some startling new insights into a personality many of us presume to know as well as our own simply because we've been watching his films for thirty years.

In many instances, the views are downright intimate--Woody swimming with wife Soon-Yi in their private pool in Milan, Woody teetering on the edge of seasickness aboard a motor launch in Venice, the entourage dodging mobs of photographers in Bologna as Nino Rota's theme from 8 1/2 jingles away on the soundtrack. Allen's sister, Letty Aronson, sometimes hovers like a mother hen.

You want more up-close and personal? The cameras and microphones capture the nervous tourist sending his laundry out in three major European capitals--and speculating that the Milanese might bring his shorts back breaded. When he gets home to New York, the dutiful son drops by his ancient parents' apartment, where, among the Oscar statuettes, Mr. Konigsberg informs Allen that he'd still be better off if he'd studied pharmacy and Mom wishes aloud that he'd settled down with a nice Jewish girl.

Allen's New Orleans-inflected music is competent (we probably hear too much of it, actually); far more is revealed about him through the apprehension of his unguarded moments.

A two-time Academy Award winner, Kopple is best known for tackling weighty subjects--the deprivations of striking Kentucky coal miners in Harlan County, U.S.A., the economic collapse of the industrial Midwest in American Dream. She is by no means the most likely candidate to explore the quirks and dreams of Woody Allen. But she says she found her subject irresistible. Mainstream moviegoers seem to hate documentaries, but Kopple is among the most sensitive and able of artists, and what she's accomplished with Blues is much more than a celebrity concert film or a catalogue of vaguely illicit backstage glimpses. She's adroitly won the confidence and relative relaxation of one of the world's most self-conscious people, a fellow who just three years ago found himself running from public scrutiny like a housecat among wolves. Here he hardly seems to notice Kopple's presence and simply conducts his life. This, of course, is the goal of every good reporter and documentarian--put the subject, unless a villain, at ease.

Our Woody, we learn, fears being licked by dogs, has at least one daily bout of depression and can show fits of pique. He says he always yearns to be in one place when he's in another and has been obsessed by classic New Orleans jazz since he was a teenager. He still plays it, most likely, because it's so unlike the rest of his work: "There's nothing between you and pure feeling, no cerebral element at all."

Which is not to say his own brain waves don't continue to worry him. Told by Soon-Yi that he bobs his head and shakes his foot while playing, the comedian looks slightly startled, then cranks the old governing super-ego into high gear. "I'm appropriately animated," he explains, "for a human in the context in which I exist."

Goodness. Thank heaven this tortured navel-gazer finds emotional release in his hardworking (if none too professional) renditions of "Algiers Strut" or "St. Louis Blues." Without all those Monday-night gigs at Michael's Pub, you suspect, the man might have run aground decades ago, without ever creating Manhattan or The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Scandals put behind him, more films ahead, Woody Allen seems here to be a happier, more contented person than you might expect, insofar as a man who once said "I don't necessarily believe in an afterlife, but I'm taking a change of underwear" can be happy. Fervent Woodyites will probably be most fascinated by the encounter with the Konigsbergs, long presumed to be prime sources of Allen's most hilarious and painful traumas. No disappointment here. In his work, Mom tells us, "he adds or subtracts from his life" because he doesn't really want people to know much about him. That shows insight. Then she promptly rebukes her son because he "did a lot of good things" in his youth but "didn't pursue them."

Alas, what's a son to do but chart, as best he can, the troubled progress of his soul?

Wild Man Blues.
Documentary directed by Barbara Kopple. With Woody Allen, Soon-Yi Previn, Letty Aronson and Martin and Nettie Konigsberg.


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