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TRUER PICTURE OF WOODY ALLEN EMERGES IN MUSICAL DOCUMENTARY.

Byline: Bob Strauss Daily News Film Critic

``Wild Man Blues'' shows you what it's like to live with the real Woody Allen.

The good news is, it doesn't make you want to run screaming out of the theater. And the bad news isn't as bad as you might imagine.

Yes, in this documentary look at his jazz band's 1996 European tour, the great filmmaker/scandal subject is often a whinier and pettier neurotic figure than he plays in his feature films. But he's also got a warmth, vulnerability and almost childlike kind of humor that differs noticeably - and pleasantly - from his movie persona.

For a guy who, more than most, has had his act confused with his real self in the public mind, the movie provides some necessary clarification. It also, however, has an unavoidable hint of official sanction to it. Director Barbara Kopple, who has won Oscars for her labor conflict documentaries ``Harlan County USA'' and ``American Dream,'' isn't operating at nearly her hard-hitting best here.

Of course, getting access to Allen and his entourage (which includes his wife/then-girlfriend Soon-Yi Previn) on their private plane and in some of the continent's poshest hotel suites requires a certain, well, objective discretion. Still, Allen himself keeps doing things - especially toward the film's end, when he returns to New York and immediately causes conflict with his aged parents - that prevent ``Wild Man Blues'' from painting too pretty a picture.

But enough about psychological insights. This is also a concert film. Allen's band, which he has played with every Monday night for some 27 years now, is a decent but not exactly barn-burning Dixieland outfit. Allen plays clarinet, very seriously; his showiest performance is at a Paris gig, where his horn goes dead and he keeps on blowing like his life depends on it. Other than that, the music is pleasant, and the crowds' reactions - from wild adulation to stony silence - are shows themselves.

The real show here, though, is Woody and Soon-Yi at home; or, at least, Woody and Soon-Yi in overdecorated rooms with no hot water. The filmmakers would probably contend that the music is primary, but surely they were aware that this was an opportunity to show the unseen side of the affair that shocked the world.

And they pretty much succeed. Previn seems to know how to handle Allen, keeping his constant kvetching in perspective and holding up her end of their (surprisingly unintellectual) conversations just fine.

My favorite scene is when Previn, who has a nice way of taking charge of situations without getting overbearing about it, calms Allen as a wake hits their boat on a Venice canal. It plays like it could be staged, but if so, the terror in Allen's face and stiffened body is the best bit of acting I've ever seen him do.

THE FACTS

The film: ``Wild Man Blues'' (PG; language)

Behind the scenes: Directed by Barbara Kopple. Produced by Jean Doumanian. Released by Fine Line Features.

Running time: One hour, 44 minutes.

Playing: Nuart, West L.A.

Our rating: Three Stars.

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Photo: Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn's relationship becomes clearer in the documentary ``Wild Man Blues,'' directed by Barbara Kopple.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Apr 17, 1998
Words:533
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