Wild Man Blues

Aug 5, 1998 at 12:00 am

Who'd have thought that Woody Allen would ever become controversial? After all, he's built a career on being the first to confess his inadequacies, his foibles and his haplessness with the opposite sex -- and yet, there are people who now refuse to see one of his films because they're under the impression that he married his stepdaughter (which isn't the case) or simply because he hooked up with a woman some 30 years his junior (a child!) who also happened to have been adopted by his ex-non-live-in girlfriend (a complicated sin, then, but juicy enough for some). To these people, especially, one eagerly recommends Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues. It may not soften their hearts, but it should de-tabloid their view of "The Allen Affair."

Ostensibly Kopple, best known for her Oscar-winning documentary on striking Kentucky coal miners Harlan County U.S.A. (1977), set out to make a film, with Allen's full cooperation, about the 1996 European concert tour of his New Orleans-style jazz band. Allen has been a clarinet devotee since childhood and has developed into a reasonably good player -- not quite a Bechet or a Coltrane, as he dryly observes, but one who has enough passion to override an elemental technique.

Not that this is a concert film -- far from it. There are several musical sequences, just enough to let us see that the band is seriously happy in its work and that Allen has a joyful, uninhibited side that's world's away from his film persona. He also shows a nearly heroic side during one sequence when, playing a cappella, he struggles manfully to coax a soulful noise from an especially recalcitrant horn; he succeeds, just barely, and the audience is with him all the way.

But the main point of interest here is watching the interaction between Woody and his companion (they had yet to marry) Soon-Yi Previn. Allen seems very much like a character from one of his films, only less tightly wound. He's intensely neurotic, afraid of everything, eternally discontented and extremely funny. Previn, in her mid-20s, is no Polanski nymphet. Instead, she's the sane, practical adult of the duo, gently chiding her preoccupied mate and seemingly bemused by being in Europe with this funny little man. For Woody's part, it looks like less a case of robbing the cradle than of latching onto a reality check. And after watching Kopple's film, one is left with the impression that it would be uncivilized not to wish them luck.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].