The image of Woody Allen playing jazz clarinet in Wild Man Blues (Fine Line) is a fascinating oxymoron. There he is up on stage, as relaxed and unobtrusive as a ham-radio operator, yet he keeps his eyes closed the way that some people do during sex, and his head waggles with tiny spasms of pleasure. This is probably the closest most of us will ever come to seeing Woody Allen openly enjoy himself, and that, indeed, is the key attraction of Barbara Kopple’s travelogue documentary, a record of the 18-city European tour Allen made with his New Orleans-style jazz band in 1996. One of the century’s most enduring creatures of habit (for him, leaving Manhattan appears to be akin to reliving birth trauma), the amiable, fussbudget Allen travels from Paris to Venice to Milan to London, yet wherever he goes the agenda is the same: play a concert, eat dinner, return to the local palatial hotel.
The film’s agenda remains unwavering as well. An unusually supple act of spin control, Wild Man Blues pretends to be a portrait of Allen the happy quasi-professional musician, with the added gossipy allure of an ”inside” look at the relationship between Woody and Soon-Yi Previn. To these eyes, the relationship looks, at best, absurd and, at worst, like a PR sham. Yes, Soon-Yi offers Woody flip little directives (she’s like a teenager exasperated with her stodgy dad), but every word that falls from her lips revolves around him. She has no ideas, no reaction to the world around her other than to gawk at the size of the hotel rooms.
Ultimately, the Woody-Soon-Yi scenes are a tease. The true purpose of Wild Man Blues is to reveal how Allen, after all these years, remains an even more deified culture hero in Europe than he ever was in America during the ’70s. Throughout the film, he seems to be touring a fantasy kingdom of Woody worship, where the fans who gather in the streets consider him not just a great artist but a great man. (They even love his bad movies, like the moribund September.) His brush with scandal? It doesn’t exist. ”See,” he’s saying, ”they still love me!” Maybe so, but by spending most of a movie basking in their adoration, Allen very craftily turns Wild Man Blues into a love letter to himself. B