Casually probing beneath her subject’s skin during an extended spell outside his Manhattan cocoon, Oscar-winning documaker Barbara Kopple follows Woody Allen on his 1996 European tour with his New Orleans-style jazz band in “Wild Man Blues.” Bowing at the Venice Film Festival in tandem with Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” but reportedly going out in the U.S. in 1998, much later than its fellow Fine Line release, this candid, at times unflatteringly double-edged look at the actor-director makes a compulsive companion piece to the scathing but apologetic self-portrait in “Harry.” Curiosity for a closer look at such a notoriously private personality should lure hard-core Allen fans into theaters, with extensive TV and cable gigs to follow.
That curiosity stands to be stoked by Allen’s consent to expose his relationship with Soon Yi Previn to public scrutiny. This is by far the most unguarded display since the media feeding frenzy that surrounded his split from Mia Farrow and the news of his relationship with her adopted daughter.
More than just a straight music film, the docu functions foremost as a study of a media figure and of celebrity in general, requiring no expertise in, or even appreciation of, this style of jazz. But while it risks being overshadowed by more voyeuristic rewards, Allen’s passion for music that he describes as “like taking a bath in honey,” and the obvious pleasure he derives from playing the clarinet are such that non-aficionados also will be drawn in.
Right up front Allen admits to being a fairly unexceptional musician with no illusions; he knows the crowds are coming mainly to get a look at him. But the entertaining concert footage shows a more-than-competent musician. The tour initially was planned as a couple of European dates for Allen and some of the musicians with whom he performs each Monday night at Michael’s Pub in New York, but ballooned to include major cities in a handful of countries. Euro audiences clearly respond well to the concerts, with a mummified crowd of Roman dignitaries being the one amusing exception.
Allen’s trademark wit and some affectionately nurtured neuroses surface, but what emerges more remarkably are insights into the solitary, somewhat depressive side of a man who describes himself as chronically dissatisfied. Allen seems to spend little time socializing with or even discussing repertoire with his band, and is reprimanded by Previn for failing to praise his fellow musicians and for communicating exclusively through band leader Eddy Davis (a mean banjo player who comes across warmly).
While Allen mildly kvetches about the disruption to his localized New York existence and passes despondently through a series of Europe’s swankiest hotels — including Milan’s Principe di Savoia, whose jaw-dropping splendors include a sunken tub-cum-swimming pool that looks like a set from “Spartacus” — Previn and Allen’s sister, Letty Aronson, act as a kind of buffer between the star and his fans. At one point, they urge their reluctant traveling companion to make an appearance outside his hotel to wave to the crowd of adoring fans gathered.
Feigning seasickness in a Venetian gondola, Allen jokes that the destruction by fire of the city’s La Fenice theater soon after he announced plans for a concert there seems like a bad sign. The Venice stint exemplifies the carnivalesque aspect — underlined by soundtrack use of Nino Rota’s Fellini scores — of his celebrity and the trail of admirers, press and paparazzi that follows him. Allen responds to this by turns with good humor, as in a very funny exchange with an effusive signora gushing about his boundless intelligence, and with extreme irritation.
Reflecting on the consistent popularity of his films in Europe as opposed to their varying fortunes in the U.S., Allen talks about an affinity between his work and the cinema of the Continent that stems from a love of European pics during his formative years. He adds lightly that his work may gain something in translation.
Kopple’s discreet, quietly revelatory style creates a fine balance between public and private personae that veers more pointedly toward the personal in an incongruous but fascinating coda. This concerns what Allen describes as “the lunch from hell” back in New York with his aged parents, whose straight-talking assessment of their son’s achievements represents the perfect touchdown after several weeks of transcontinental worship. While perhaps a fraction overlong, the pic is technically sharp in all departments.