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DVD Review: Wild Man Blues

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Barbara Kopple’s 1998 documentary on filmmaker Woody Allen’s 1996 tour of Europe with his New Orleans Jazz Band (reputedly 18 concerts, and seven countries, in 23 days), Wild Man Blues, is one of the most pointless, dull, and utterly inert documentaries I’ve ever seen. I’ve long been a fan of Allen’s films, and even his worst films (see The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion) are a cut or three above their typical Hollywood counterparts. And Kopple is a noted documentarian of quality (see Harlan County, USA). But, this film is nothing but a manifest ploy to rehabilitate the man’s image after his 1991 scandal of splitting up with actress Mia Farrow and shacking up with her daughter.

Documentaries are supposed to enlighten and give insight into their subject matter. This film does not, even at a bloated hour and 45 minutes in length. This could have been cut to an hour, with ease, had most of the execrable jazz been cut. It’s not that the music is so bad as the fact that Allen and his compatriots are so utterly meager. Without Allen, the rest of the musicians could never have gotten a gig at a bar mitzvah.

The truth is that the music was just a diversion for Allen to get his side of the scandal out into the public. We see, of course, Soon-Yi Previn (who later married Allen), and she is portrayed as not quite there (and sometimes seems autistic), emotionally nor intellectually. This great difference in intellect, age, and attitudes (she’s not a fan of Allen’s earlier films, and – at least, then – has not seen Annie Hall) lends credence to many of the anti-Allen crowd, and this might not be so glaring if Previn were a babe — say, a Scarlett Johansson or Natalie Portman. Instead, she looks sort of like an Oriental Christina Ricci, replete with bulging fetal forehead. We also get snippets of Allen’s sister, Letty Aronson, and parents, Nettie and Martin Konigsberg (then in their 90s), but the parents come only at the film’s end, when the tour is done, and the whole segment of Nettie kvetching about Soon-Yi not being a good Jewish girl feels staged.

But the real problem with Wild Man Blues is that Allen is never allowed to display his wit and intellect. There are a few good Vaudevillean one-liners (a lady says to Allen, "You are so intelligent," and he replies, "Well, yes. It is a burden, though, sometimes. With this much intelligence comes great responsibility. You know. It’s lonely at the top."), but mostly endless scenes of Allen blowing on his clarinet, making nice with Soon-Yi in their chi-chi hotel digs, hobnobbing with sycophantic mayors of European cities who give him the keys to their respective cities, and a number of oddball scenes that serve no purpose in the narrative — such as a French fan who disbelieves Allen has any prowess as a musician, only to, after the show, become a true convert. I mean, did the filmmaker Kopple really believe the viewer would be surprised or enlightened that the man had changed his opinion? There are about two minutes devoted to the scandal, an equal amount of time on Allen discussing his films, but absolutely nada on Allen’s career in stand-up comedy, early television, much less his day to day life before and during celebrity. So, again, what was the point for this film, save to burnish Allen’s reputation as a human being?

Perhaps that is good enough to carry a film if it provides a modicum of the other qualities previously mentioned. But Wild Man Blues does not. Even for Allen fans who define the original intent of the term as fanatic, this film is something of coitus sans ejaculation. Nowhere do we get a glimpse of Allen unguarded; do we really believe that he and Soon-Yi in white robes, eating a gourmet Spanish breakfast, is a revelation of any sort? Of course, that question would be better addressed to director Kopple, who made a highly regarded, Oscar-winning 1976 documentary called Harlan County U.S.A., about a miner’s strike, as well as many others, but in this film seems to be on cruise control. 

As for the DVD? It’s released by Alliance Atlantis and has no special features whatsoever — not even a trailer. While keeping in step with Allen’s own preferences for his own films’ DVDs, Kopple should have broken ranks, for even if the film itself is not that interesting, a good audio commentary on the making of the film, and about conversations and incidents left out (did Allen have ‘final cut’?) would go a long way to affording me the ability to recommend this DVD (but not the film). Alas, its lack dooms me to deny even that slim approbation.

At best, Wild Man Blues is a competent little film, a travelogue with a celebrity, but not one which will leave a lasting impression to the uninterested observer, even if it does occasionally appeal to the architecture lover out there. There are no great techniques nor style explored the way an Errol Morris or Ken Burns documentary is manifestly theirs. Thus, this film is recommended only for Allen fans who desire to have the man’s whole oeuvre — as director, writer, actor, or what not. And, yes, I am one of those people. But, for the rest of you, go watch Another Woman or Stardust Memories. Trust me on that!

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About Dan Schneider

  • ‘Documentaries are supposed to enlighten and give insight into their subject matter’

    Assume your point is correct: ‘to give some background on the tour.’

    There was none, and where were the in depth interviews w other band members?

    If this had been the Joe Schlabotnick Dixieland Revue, Kopple would not have been there.

    So, your claim is invalid.

  • John

    What a pathetic review. The focus was on his tour, not his professional career. It was not about rehabilitating anything – it simply showed him as he was during the tour. The band plays “crude” jazz they way it was played in New Orleans. The musicians are great and do play elsewhere. It’s a shame that your review suggests the documentary was made for any purpose other than to give some background on the tour.