Wild Man Blues

on April 17, 1998 by Eliot Forbes
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   Even the worst documentary usually has something to recommend it--some small moment of truth or glory or thwarted illumination. But "Wild Man Blues," Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple's enervated study of comic auteur and amateur clarinettist Woody Allen's 1997 musical tour of Europe, is that rarest of rarities: an utterly worthless two hours in the dark.
   Kopple, whose "American Dream" and "Harlan County, U.S.A" were justly hailed as modern masterpieces of social realism, deserves a fare amount of the blame for what's wrong here. Showing no discernible flair for biographical portraiture, her approach appears to have been to point a camera or two at Woody and his paramour Soon Yi Previn, under the erroneous assumption that everything they do or say is inherently fascinating.
   It just ain't so, as "Wild Man Blues" demonstrates in almost existential detail. We get Soon Yi's discourse on the rubbery texture of a Spanish omelette. We get five long minutes of Soon Yi trying to figure out why there's no hot water in her Italian bathroom. We get a "fly on the wall" view of obscenely lush five star European hotel rooms, which Woody dutifully if dispiritedly mocks for the camera, as if he weren't the guy who chose to stay in them in the first place. For our thrilling climax, we fly back to New York to meet Woody's parents, and discover that his 96-year-old father is enfeebled to the point of senility, and that when it comes to Soon Yi, his mom would have preferred that old comedic standby, the "nice Jewish girl."
   It's all punctuated by Woody's neuroses and hypochondria, which are less charming without the punchlines. And oh yes: There's a surplus of positively interminable footage of Woody's concert appearances fronting a Dixieland jazz band which, to put it charitably, wouldn't sound out of place at Disneyland's Country Bear Jamboree.
   The two-pronged hidden agenda here is obvious: 1) To make a few bucks in Europe, where two hours of Woody scratching his stomach would probably pack moviehouses; and 2) To let an American public which has rejected Allen's recent movies get the behind-the-scenes peek it's been craving, in the hope that the actual details of the notorious Allen-Previn coupling will prove so mundane that the artist will be forgiven his trespasses and allowed to move on. But the rigorousness with which the general air of tedium is maintained suggests there's more going on here than meets the eye, though Kopple, who sold her services to Allen's longtime producer Jean Doumanian, never gets near enough to her subject to suggest what that subtext might be.
   Perhaps if Terry Zwigoff, maker of the brilliant biographical documentary "Crumb" and the original director of "Wild Man Blues" before Doumanian axed him, had been kept on and given the kind of free hand he had in chronicling the life and times of underground comics artist Robert Crumb, a more fascinating portrait might have emerged. But as Zwigoff's firing from "Wild Man Blues" illustrated, the first responsibility of commissioned art isn't to tell the truth about its subject but to satisfy its pocketbook patrons. While it's easy to imagine Doumanian and Allen being pleased as punch by the evasions that make up the lackluster melody of "Wild Man Blues," it's hard to imagine anybody else who will be.    Featuring Woody Allen and Soon Yi Previn. Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Written by Conor McPherson. Produced by Robert Walpole. Documentary. A Fine Line release. Rated PG for brief language. Running time: 104 min.
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